Editorial | Coal-ash cleanup bill goes to governor

Editorial | Coal-ash cleanup bill goes to governor

The environment may sometimes be costly to clean up. But it's cheaper than the alternative.

Efforts to clean up toxic coal-ash pits advanced this week when proposed legislation addressing the problem was sent for signing to Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

The bill — SB 9 — creates a regulatory framework that requires the owners to pay for closure and cleanup costs of the ash pits, which include one along the Middle Fork River in Vermilion County.

Engineers associated with Dynegy Inc. and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have been working to stabilize a section of riverbank that holds back toxic coal ash stored in pits at the company's former Vermilion Power station.

Coal ash, the remnant of burning coal, is considered to be highly toxic.

The Environmental Law & Policy Center reports that "Illinois has the highest concentration of coal-ash impoundments in the country," a circumstance that threatens groundwater contamination.

Assuming Pritzker signs the measure into law, Illinois will be the third state — Virginia and North Carolina are the others — to provide coal-ash protections "above and beyond federal requirements," the policy center stated.

Because of the water-pollution possibilities, this is a matter that requires prompt attention.

What may have seemed like a safe storage method one year can look completely different or perhaps even irresponsible 20 or 30 years later.

Coal ash contains heavy metals that include mercury and arsenic. News accounts indicate that "in many cases," coal ash was placed in unlined pits that over the years become increasingly vulnerable to leaks.

How many of these ash pits are there in Illinois? Too many.

Capitol News Illinois reports that there are 25 coal-ash "impoundments" with another "50-plus" remaining open.

The legislation essentially requires the owners to take financial responsibility for the complex and costly cleanup process.

Under the proposed rules, the owners will be directed to submit alternative "closure alternatives analysis" to the Environmental Protection Agency. Then, the EPA will choose the method it considers to be best.

In addition to protecting groundwater, one of the bill's chief goals is to ensure that taxpayers don't get stuck with the cost of cleanups. That is an eminently reasonable approach — utilities that created what are indisputably threats to the public health are profit-making entities, and they must be held financially responsible.

Companies, however, can only pay if they have the resources to pay, and that problem created a major point of contention in a bill whose aims draw strong support.

Coal-ash impoundment owners will be required to provide bonds ensuring "closure and remediation." Some legislators proposed allowing the owners to meet that requirement by buying insurance, but that was rejected. Taxpayers may yet be on the hook for some cleanup costs.

Nonetheless, this is a bill worth passing. A bipartisan group of legislators, including local members of the House and Senate, deserve credit for getting it through what can be a difficult legislative process. Now, let's get the cleanups going.

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