Results of erosion study near Dynegy ash pits stirs calls to action

Results of erosion study near Dynegy ash pits stirs calls to action

DANVILLE — An engineering study has confirmed that the embankment separating the Middle Fork River from millions of cubic yards of potentially harmful coal ash is eroding at an average of more than 2 feet per year, prompting local river advocates to call for swift action to protect the waterway.

The report, completed by Stantec Consulting Services for Dynegy Inc., states that in some places, the embankment is only 19 feet wide, and erosion rate estimates range from 1 foot to 3.6 feet per year.

The average is 2.3 feet per year. Anything over 2 would mean that some of the narrowest sections could be gone within eight years, according to Stantec.

According to local river advocates, the study confirms that the bank is eroding more quickly than previously thought. They're pressuring the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency to hold a public hearing on the issue.

If the agency does not, they will organize one in the spring.

"If the IEPA won't hold a public hearing on a plan that could place the river and Vermilion County residents at risk, we will," said Lan Richart, co-director of Eco-Justice Collaborative.

Advocates also want the IEPA to require that the coal ash be moved away from the river altogether.

Dynegy owns the fly-ash pits that were left over from the coal-burning process at the shuttered Vermilion Power Station just upstream from Kickapoo State Park. The Houston-based company wants to stabilize the existing embankment between the river and the coal-ash pits and then cap the pits with an earthen layer.

But according to Stantec's report, the embankment is already too narrow in some sections for heavy equipment to be staged there for stabilizing the bank — a necessary step before the pits can be capped.

"A decision to permanently leave millions of cubic yards of toxic waste in three unlined pits built in the Middle Fork River's floodplain could have long-term implications for Vermilion County and Illinois taxpayers," said Kristin Camp, a member of the newly formed citizens group Protect the Middle Fork.

On Wednesday, Dynegy's David Byford confirmed that stabilizing the bank and capping the pits is still the company's intent. He said a previous section of the bank that was stabilized a year ago proves that a durable, long-term barrier can be installed with minimal disruption to the river.

"Our direction is that additional riverbank stabilization work in conjunction with caps would provide protection to both water resources," Byford said, referring to the Middle Fork River and underground water. "We take this very seriously, because we understand the value of the river."

Stantec outlined two options for stabilizing the remaining bank along the river, but explained that construction, long-term inspection and maintenance of the embankment requires that the bench, or width of the embankment, be at least 30 feet to accommodate equipment.

Several areas along the embankment have already eroded to less than 30 feet — the narrowest being 19, according to the report.

To accommodate construction, either the embankment would have to be widened in areas, or construction would have to be done with equipment staged on a platform in the middle of the river, according to the report.

Local river advocates argue that contaminants in the fly ash — like arsenic, mercury and lead — are already leaching out of the ponds that are not lined at the bottom. And for the ponds to remain in the flood plain of the river — even if capped — means risking long-term contamination to the river and underground water supplies, they contend.

Byford did not know of a timeline for when Dynegy might move ahead with one or both of the stabilization options outlined in the report. Engineers recommended doing so in late summer through early fall, when river levels are lowest.