Public invited to discuss Middle Fork River bank stabilization plan

Public invited to discuss Middle Fork River bank stabilization plan

NEWTOWN — Illinois' only officially designated Wild and Scenic River could resemble a major construction zone later this year, with heavy equipment blocking the paths of canoeists, kayakers and tubers who float the Middle Fork River.

An avid kayaker, Germaine Light worries about the disruption to Kickapoo Adventures, the river trip outfitter based at nearby Kickapoo State Park, and the safety of people on the water.

"How will that affect traffic coming down the river?" wondered Light, who lives downstream along the Vermilion River, which the Middle Fork merges into closer to Danville.

She's been an active part of Protect the Middle Fork, a grassroots local group that's been pushing for the removal of coal ash along the river upstream from Kickapoo at the shuttered Vermilion Power Station. That's where energy company Dynegy Midwest Generation wants to rebuild a long section of stream bank that separates the river from coal-ash impoundments left over from the coal-burning process at the power plant.

"The construction would take place literally in the river, because there's no space on the bank," said Lan Richart, of Champaign, who co-founded with wife Pam Richart the Eco-Justice Collaborative that's been working for years trying to convince Dynegy and government agencies that the best course of action is moving the tons of contaminant-laced coal ash away from the Middle Fork River.

It's been stated, said Lan Richart, that the need for this project is to control erosion along the river bank. But if there's no coal ash next to the river, then there's "no need for erosion control in the first place," he said.


Open mic night

At 6 p.m. Tuesday at Danville Area Community College's Mary Miller Gymnasium, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency is granting the public its first official — and maybe only — opportunity to comment on the record about Dynegy's plan to reinforce about 1,950 feet of bank separating the Middle Fork River from more than 3 million yards of coal ash.

River regulars have been pushing for more than four years for a public hearing on the Dynegy coal-ash impoundments. And although this hearing is narrowly focused on the stream bank project, Light and the Richarts said it's impossible to separate the two.

"That money could be better used to move the coal ash," Light said, referring to the bank stabilization price tag. "Don't we want to move that stuff? Isn't that what we really want to do?"

The ash contains contaminants like mercury, cadmium and arsenic that can "pollute waterways, ground water, drinking water and the air" without proper management, according to the U.S. EPA.

Coal-ash spills elsewhere — including one near Kingston, Tenn., and another in Eden, N.C. — caused "widespread environmental and economic damage to nearby waterways and properties," according to the U.S. EPA.

A repeat of what happened in Kingston along the banks of the Middle Fork is the greatest fear of many local residents and officials, who have been calling for Dynegy to pursue what they believe is the safest route long term — moving the coal ash away from the river and burying it in properly lined, covered pits.

"A catastrophic event," Light said. "That's what we are really concerned about here."


'The entire picture'

Light expressed frustration that Tuesday's hearing is narrowly focused on the proposed stream bank stabilization project but not the bigger story — about the dangers coal ash presents.

"We really think that there is a huge need to look at the entire picture here," she said. "The only reason they would be stabilizing this bank is because of the coal ash behind it."

That picture grew a bit more complicated on Thursday, when the IEPA asked the Illinois Attorney General's office to consider enforcement action against Dynegy for the release of contaminants from its coal-ash ponds.

The IEPA requests that the attorney general direct Dynegy to meet ground water quality standards at its ash ponds by developing, obtaining approval of, and implementing a closure plan for the impoundments; obtaining all necessary approvals to implement the proposed riverbank stabilization project; and pay a monetary fine for its past violations related to coal-ash storage at the Vermilion Power Station.

Rather than the proposed monthslong stream bank stabilization, Eco-Justice, the Prairie Rivers Network and other environmental groups would prefer to see quicker, smaller-scale emergency work done to the bank now, followed by long-term efforts to move the ash.

Since 2011, when Dynegy closed the former Vermilion Power Station, the company has been working with the IEPA on a permanent closure plan. But as that process has dragged on, the river bank has continued to erode, and last summer, Dynegy applied for a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permit to do the stream bank project, triggering other government authorization processes.

River advocates argue that Dynegy's overall goal is to reinforce the bank, then convince the state to allow the company to cap the pits and leave the ash in place next to the river.

Light believes the company is mostly interested in whatever is the least costly alternative.

And her side? "We care about our community," she said. "We care about our ecosystem."


'Ground water protection'

A spokesperson for Texas-based Vistra Energy, which now owns Dynegy, said in a statement last week that the company is committed to environmental stewardship at all of its sites and looks forward to demonstrating that commitment to the citizens of Illinois.

The plan at the power plant, Vistra's Meranda Cohn added, "includes removing ash from one of the existing impoundments to another impoundment that is farther away from the river, as well as installing a slurry wall to provide additional ground water protection."

But first, she said, the company must stabilize the riverbank adjacent to the Old East Ash Pond and North Ash Pond.

"Since taking ownership of the retired power plant in April 2018, the company has been clear in its belief that work is needed — work that has stalled for too long without resolution or action," Cohn said.

But river advocates argue that any amount of bank reinforcement with ash left in place along the river will eventually fail against the force of the river. Just like happened during previous attempts, they say, including steel gabions put in place decades ago by the former Illinois Power Company.

"Eventually, the river is going to win," Pam Richart said.

There's room on the what's now Vistra property to bury the ash properly away from the river, Light noted.

Put it there, she said, and "then you don't have to worry about it anymore."


Large crowd expected

The 22,000 cubic yards of large rock lining a section of the Middle Fork for a distance longer than six football fields does not gel with the nation's Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

"It's a really challenging situation because ultimately with a project of this scale and magnitude and this amount of rock, it's kind of hard to reconcile the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act with it," said Hector Santiago, regional rivers coordinator with the National Park Service, which oversees the Wild and Scenic River program.

"But also a factor is that we don't want the contents of the (coal ash) ponds to end up in the river," he said. "To some extent, this is the challenge and quandary we are in."

Both the park service and the IEPA are currently deciding whether to sign off on this Vistra Energy project. The company needs a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permit to conduct its stabilization project, and in turn, the Corps needs authorization from both the IEPA and the National Park Service to proceed.

Tuesday's hearing was scheduled specifically to gather public feedback on that stabilization project, said the IEPA's Kim Biggs, who added that any public comments must relate to water quality issues associated with that project.

"Comments dealing with the closure of the coal-ash impoundments are part of the enforcement case referred to the AGO and are not part of this riverbank stabilization," she said. "Additionally, given the large attendance expected, those planning to speak will be asked to condense their comments to less than two minutes; however, they may provide their full comments in writing."

Lan Richart said the stabilization project does pose water quality risks, because it will disturb a bank that's already seeping contaminants from the ash ponds into the river. He's not convinced silt curtains and other cautionary measures proposed by the company will contain those contaminants.

In its referral to the attorney general, the IEPA stated that Dynegy has historically monitored the ground water in the vicinity of its ash ponds, and those results have indicated that the ash ponds have released contaminants into the ground water at levels exceeding the state's ground water quality standards, resulting in a violation in 2012.

Additionally, the agency alleges, "in-stream inspection of the river conducted by the IEPA in 2018 identified numerous seeps of heavily-stained water emanating from the embankments adjacent to the Dynegy coal ash ponds and flowing into the river."

"They're trying to engineer away a problem," Lan Richart said of the company's stream bank stabilization proposal. The problem is the coal ash, he said. Move it, or trouble will follow.


'Trying to plan ahead'

As the regulatory specialist overseeing the company's permitting for the stream bank project, U.S. Army Corps Engineer Sarah Keller was at the former Dynegy site along the Middle Fork earlier this month and said a section of bank between 200 and 300 feet long is within inches of eroding into the side of one of the coal-ash ponds.

She said the company is monitoring the situation on a daily basis.

"Nobody wants anything to breach. We don't need a coal-ash spill. We are trying to plan ahead," said Keller, who explained that this permit review has "moved dramatically slower" than anticipated. She said she still doesn't have all the documentation required from the company and couldn't move forward with a permit even if she had the necessary authorizations from the IEPA and National Park Service.

Lan Richart fears that the IEPA's action Thursday will only slow the decision-making processes more.

"And in the meantime, we have these banks eroding," he said.

Pam Richart remains puzzled why some government agency doesn't just force the company to stabilize the banks on an emergency, interim basis.

"Because the next big storm event could be catastrophic," she said.


Task force proposed

On the same day that the IEPA requested enforcement action from the AG's office, state Rep. Mike Marron, R-Fithian, introduced legislation in Springfield that would form a task force of state legislators, representatives from the coal industry and environmentalists, as well as a representative from the Illinois Natural History Survey, to hash out a solution for the Dynegy site that would satisfy all involved.

"We want to come up with a solution that's amenable to everyone," he said. "The problem needs to be fixed. It needs to be cleaned up, and if there's a way forward where we can get everybody together and a solution everybody can agree to, then that's more productive."

Marron didn't indicate whether he believes a solution should require the ash to be moved away from the river.

"That's the idea behind getting everybody together," he said. "I'm not an expert. I'm not an engineer. I'm not an environmental expert.

"Nobody, to my knowledge, has actually sat down on both sides of the issue, and that would be my hope — that we could come up with something that everybody can live with. That's the whole point of the task force."

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