Move coal ash away from Middle Fork

Move coal ash away from Middle Fork

Scenic river is moving closer to Dynegy's coal ash ponds, setting up Dan River-like spill.

About 30 miles east of Champaign-Urbana, the Middle Fork River corridor runs through an area unlike the flat farmland of the rest of East Central Illinois.

The clear, gravel-bottomed stream and its wooded banks are home to fish and other aquatic life as well as many species of animals. River otters, recently reintroduced to the area, are thriving.

In fact, the Middle Fork, a favorite area for canoeing and recreation for many in East Central Illinois and beyond, is the only Illinois waterway with the national scenic river designation.

But some say this ecological gem is threatened by the leftover waste from a power plant that once operated along its banks. The energy company that owns the land has proposed some remedies it says will prevent future problems, but an environmental group is calling for stronger measures.

Whom to believe?

Illinois Power opened the coal-fired Vermilion Power Station near Oakwood in 1955. Houston-based Dynegy Inc. acquired Illinois Power in 2000. Dynegy officially closed the plant in November 2011, although it had not been generating power regularly for some time before that.

Left behind on the site, which Dynegy still owns, is the waste byproduct of coal combustion, called coal ash — about 3 million cubic yards of it in three man-made ponds that were built with dams that butt up against the river.

Coal ash, the material that remains after burning coal for electricity, can contain a broad range of substances that can be toxic in high-enough concentrations, including heavy metals such as arsenic, selenium, lead and cadmium, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Advocates for the Middle Fork, including the Prairie Rivers Network, are urging Gov. Pat Quinn and the Illinois EPA to force Dynegy to relocate the three coal-ash ponds to a different place away from the river on its more than 900-acre property. They maintain that it's just a matter of time before the walls of the ponds are breached and tons of sludge spill into the Middle Fork, causing an environmental disaster.

We believe they have a compelling argument based on their claims.

Groundwater contamination has been discovered. In July 2012, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency issued violation notices to Dynegy after it was discovered that two of the ash ponds were leaking contaminants into the groundwater. That groundwater could eventually seep into the surface water like the Middle Fork River.

The ponds are within the river's floodplain.

The river itself is moving closer to the ponds despite efforts to strengthen the present bank.

One of the ponds is located over old mines and may be destabilized by subsidence.

Dynegy submitted a corrective action plan following the disclosure of groundwater contamination. The plan called for closing the two older ponds by capping them with a hard cover to prevent water infiltration and monitoring groundwater. It did not call for capping the third, which unlike the other two, was built with a clay liner barrier.

Officials with the IEPA and Illinois Department of Natural Resources are still determining whether to approve the plan or request another revision, but we agree with those who say the plan does not go far enough.

For decades, the nation has relied on coal-fired power plants to generate electricity, and coal ash is one of the nation's largest waste streams. There are an estimated 90 coal ash sites in Illinois alone.

Coal ash spills are unfortunately not rare. The most recent example is a spill at the Dan River in North Carolina in which a breach at a storage pond released enough toxic sludge to affect 70 miles of the river. The nation's worst spill occurred in 2008 when 1.1 billion gallons of coal-ash slurry were released after the breach of a dike at the Kingston plant in Tennessee.

Technically not classified as hazardous waste under state or federal standards, coal ash does have its uses. About half of it is recycled and used as an additive to strengthen concrete for roads and bridges across the country. But much of it also is mixed with water and stored in ponds. It should not be stored near water sources as it is near the Middle Fork and in so many areas of the country.

Efforts are underway at the state and federal levels to strengthen rules regarding the storage of coal ash. We believe that new rules should require storage on dry-land sites, and we urge state officials to require Dynegy to move its coal ash ponds away from the Middle Fork River.

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