DANVILLE — It's been more than two years since Dynegy shut down its coal-fired Vermilion Power Station, but environmental concerns still remain at the idled facility's coal-ash waste ponds that were built next to the Middle Fork River, just upstream of Kickapoo State Park and other protected lands.
According to Andrew Mason, spokesman with the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, agency officials believe that one or two of the facility's ash ponds are leaching contaminants into groundwater in the area of the former power plant north of Oakwood in Vermilion County. That groundwater could eventually seep into surface water like the Middle Fork River, according to Mason.
But according to Dynegy's own reports, that is already happening.
In the company's quarterly report to the U.S. Securities Exchange Commission earlier this summer, the Houston-based energy company explained that it has been doing "hydrogeologic" investigations at the Vermilion facility, and results have shown that the coal-ash impoundments are affecting groundwater in the area. The report goes on to state that two of the facility's impoundments "impact groundwater quality onsite and that such groundwater migrates off-site to the north of the property and to the adjacent Middle Fork of the Vermilion River."
The practice through the years at the more than 50-year-old power plant was to deposit coal-combustion residuals, commonly called coal ash, into impoundments, or man-made ponds that were built with dams that butt up against the Middle Fork River. Overflow from the impoundments rolls into the Middle Fork River.
In July 2012, the Illinois EPA issued violation notices to Dynegy concerning the impacts on groundwater at the site. The notices alleged violations of groundwater standards at the Vermilion facility, and in December 2012, the agency notified Dynegy that it might pursue legal action by referring the matter to the Illinois attorney general's office.
More pond problems?
Carolyn Burke, chief administrative officer for Dynegy, said the Houston-based company submitted a corrective action plan "awhile back," but the state EPA has asked Dynegy to reconsider aspects of the plan, so Dynegy is doing more geological study now and will resubmit its plan in November.
Illinois EPA's Mason confirmed that Dynegy is currently developing its corrective action plan, which will result in the closure of two of the three ash ponds on the site: the old east impoundment and the north impoundment. Both are older impoundments than the third pond, which is called the "new east ash pond." Unlike the older impoundments, the new east ash pond was built with a clay liner that creates a barrier between the waste and the ground below it.
According to the Dynegy report, the new east impoundment is not known to affect groundwater.
But Traci Barkley, water resources scientist with the Prairie Rivers Network, said there is concern with the newer impoundment, because it was recently discovered that it was built over underground mining areas.
The state EPA expects to receive a revised action plan from the company sometime this fall, Mason said, following more technical surveys that are necessary because of the complicated nature of the site. The agency could approve the plan or seek modifications based on what the company submits, he said.
According to the Dynegy report, the corrective action plan includes groundwater monitoring and closing both impoundments by installing a "geosynthetic cover" over them. The report also states that Dynegy submitted an application to the Illinois EPA to establish "a groundwater management zone while impacts from the facility are mitigated," and estimated the cost of closing both impoundments is about $11 million. And if Dynegy were to go ahead and close the third impoundment, the report states, the cost would increase another $2 million.
Officials with the Prairie Rivers Network have been monitoring the situation and providing input on what action they believe Dynegy should take. Barkley said Prairie Rivers will be requesting a public hearing on Dynegy's plan, giving the public the opportunity for input on how the property is addressed.
Barkley said the ash ponds were built adjacent to the Middle Fork River and are in the river's flood plain. Barkley said when the river reaches flood stage, the water table backs up into the impoundments and picks up dissolved pollutants that then travel back to the river.
In September 2012, Prairie Rivers proposed to state EPA officials an alternative to Dynegy's proposal to put a cap on the impoundments. In its letter, Prairie Rivers agreed that caps will stop rain water from infiltrating the ponds and contributing to more pollution of underlying groundwater and runoff toward the river and other surface water; however, caps will not solve the flood-plain problem or the issue with the newer impoundment sitting above mined areas, the group said.
Barkley said that's why the contents of all three impoundments should be removed entirely and placed in a newly constructed, lined impoundment that's out of the flood plain but still on Dynegy property. Barkley said that would increase the cost of Dynegy's action plan, but it's more than worth the additional cost to ensure more problems won't occur in the future.
Barkley said it's reasonable that the Dynegy property, which totals almost 980 acres, could end up in the hands of the state as an addition to Kickapoo State Park.
Burke said she couldn't comment on specific negotiations with potential buyers, but the company is considering all options for the property. Burke said there have been some active discussions along those lines, but she would not comment on whether the state was a party in any of those discussions.
Officials from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources did not comment on whether the Dynegy property could become state land.
Barkley said from Prairie Rivers perspective there are two issues — Dynegy's final closure plan for the property, and its federal permit that allows water to be released from the property into the river. A public hearing was held earlier this month on a renewal of that federal permit; Prairie Rivers representatives and private citizens attended and voiced their concerns about the Dynegy property.
Sandy Bales of Champaign-Urbana, who is a longtime advocate of protecting the Middle Fork River, attended the public hearing.
Bales said the protected scenic river supports wildlife, flora and fauna as well as family recreation with thousands of people floating the river annually. The pollutants leaching into underground water resources and into the river, she said, affect the water quality. She said the river is also moving and eroding away at the land between the impoundments and the river.
"What if the whole thing breaches and comes into the river?" she said. "If Dynegy would do the right thing and remove that from that fragile position where it could breach and ruin Illinois' only scenic river; if they would do the right thing and clean that up properly, that would set a precedent for what other power plants might do. So they could do the right thing, and it would make a huge difference for a lot of rivers and people and wildlife."
Bales said protecting the river is leaving a legacy for future generations like her grandchildren. She and her husband canoed the Middle Fork for many years.
"We love that river so much. ... We had so much fun with friends and family," she said. "All that stuff is precious, and even if you're not one of the people using it, everything is connected, and it's all precious. Clean water is important."
In addition to the idle power plant, coal-ash impoundments and other infrastructure like parking lots, the site includes a lake and a former campground that was also closed by Dynegy.
About coal-combustion residuals
Coal-combustion residuals, commonly called coal ash, is the material that remains after burning coal for electricity and includes fly ash, bottom ash, boiler slag and flue gas desulfurized gypsum.
The ash can contain a broad range of substances that can be toxic in high-enough concentrations, including arsenic, selenium and cadmium, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. CCRs — as the agency refers to coal-combustion residuals — are one of the largest waste streams in the nation and are not considered hazardous waste by EPA standards.
But CCR impoundments have been under much more scrutiny from the EPA since 2008 after the massive coal ash spill at the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston facility, which flooded more than 300 acres, damaging homes and property and the Emory and Clinch rivers, which experienced fish kills.
The public health and environmental hazards from unsafe coal-ash dumping have been known for many years, according to the Prairie Rivers Network, the local nonprofit organization that advocates for local waterways. Prairie Rivers maintains that coal ash poses an increased risk of cancer, learning disabilities, neurological disorders, birth defects, reproductive failure, asthma and other sicknesses, and also threatens aquatic life in waterways. Coal-ash runoff contains small amounts of harmful metals like selenium that can slowly build up in aquatic food chains, according to Prairie Rivers.
The EPA has proposed regulating coal ash by 2014 to address risks from disposal of the waste generated by electric utilities and independent power producers. The EPA has proposed listing CCRs as special wastes subject to regulation when destined for disposal in landfills or surface impoundments or regulating coal ash as a nonhazardous waste, according to the agency's website. But that has generated controversy in Washington as some lawmakers have expressed concern with the EPA's possible regulation of coal ash negatively affecting industries that have found safe uses for the byproduct, such as in the manufacture of concrete, shingles and wallboard.