IEPA official talks plans for closing coal-ash pits near Middle Fork

IEPA official talks plans for closing coal-ash pits near Middle Fork

DANVILLE — "In perpetuity." That was the well-worn phrase of an Illinois Environmental Protection Agency official Monday night, explaining what the state agency expects of any long-term plan to "close" coal-ash impoundments on the former Dynegy power plant property along the Middle Fork River.

Richard Cobb, of IEPA's division of public water supplies, told about 100 people at a public hearing Monday night in Danville that any final plan between the state agency and Vistra-Dynegy must ensure the ash doesn't harm the public or environment "in perpetuity."

"This is the only National Scenic and Wild River in Illinois, so whatever is done here, it's the 'P' word, in perpetuity bank stability," Cobb said, adding that a plan needs to be aesthetically pleasing and include ongoing maintenance.

The hearing at Danville Area Community College was not held by the IEPA or any other government agency but by the public — a "people's hearing" coordinated by the Eco-Justice Collaborative, a local non-profit that's been advocating, along with groups like the Prairie Rivers Network, for the total removal of coal ash from the Middle Fork River flood plain.

According to the U.S. EPA, coal ash can contain contaminants like mercury, cadmium and arsenic that pollute waterways, groundwater, drinking water and air without proper management.

Dynegy closed the power plant in 2011. That same year, testing from four groundwater monitoring wells at the ash impoundments revealed levels of boron, manganese and sulfate in excess of Groundwater Quality Standards, resulting in the IEPA issuing violations in 2012.

Since then, Dynegy officials have slowly been negotiating with IEPA a final closure plan for the ash pits that are left behind from decades of burning coal. Dynegy officials have said they want to stabilize the bank that separates the Middle Fork and the 3.3 million cubic yards of ash and then cap the ash ponds with an earthen layer.

But Eco-Justice and other river advocates maintain that the coal ash pits are already leaking contaminants into the river via groundwater flowing through the pits and into the river through seeps along its banks. And they also maintain that the "meandering river" is moving west toward the pits and erosion will eventually compromise any stabilization measures if the ash is left in place.

Bruce Rhoads, a fluvial geomorphologist who testified at Monday's hearing, said stabilizing river banks is challenging.

"In a meandering river such as the Middle Fork, attempts to effectively stabilize banks against the natural process of erosion are challenging, and even with frequent monitoring and maintenance, could fail," he said.

In addition to a stream bank erosion study Dynegy completed, Cobb said the IEPA is awaiting results of six new rounds of groundwater monitoring at the site. That information will be taken into consideration in choosing one of five closure plans that range from capping and leaving the ash in place to removing it altogether. He said cost estimates and time lines were provided by Vistra-Dynegy with each option.

Cobb said an interim stabilization option may be required. For instance, he said the total removal of coal ash from the site could take 8-10 years, so an interim stabilization plan would be needed to protect the river until all the ash is removed.

Along with Rhoads, other experts testified Monday, including Abel Russ, an Environmental Integrity Project attorney and Andrew Rehn with Prairie Rivers as well as members of the public and residents in other states who have been affected by coal ash contamination.

Eco-Justice is compiling all the comments and information from the hearing and will be submitting it to the governor's office, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and the IEPA for consideration in upcoming decisions later this year on a final closure plan at the Dynegy site.

An attorney from Vistra Energy, which recently merged with Dynegy, also attended Monday's hearing. He declined to answer any questions but gave the News-Gazette a lengthy written statement that talks about moving forward with bank stabilization plans, but does not mention any consideration of removing the coal ash from the river's flood plain.

"Rest assured: While Vistra inherited this site, as the new owner, Vistra is committed to implementing an effective solution," according to the statement. "Vistra is working through the regulatory process as swiftly as possible, engaging with the appropriate government agencies, and Vistra is committed to proceeding with a swift and protective closure plan."