CNI coal ash

State Reps. Mike Marron, R-Fithian, and Carol Ammons, D-Urbana, are joined by advocates at a news event May 21, 2019, in Springfield as they speak in favor of Senate Bill 9, which was signed into law the week of July 29, 2019.

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SPRINGFIELD — Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed a new state law this week aimed at ensuring safe closure of toxic coal-ash pits and financial protections for taxpayers should the pits cause environmental disaster.

Coal ash is the byproduct left behind when coal is burned to produce power, and it contains harmful heavy metals such as mercury and arsenic, which can seep into groundwater.

In many cases, coal ash is placed in unlined pits, where it remains long after the power plants are closed. Locally, environmentalists have accused Dynegy of violating state law by allowing toxic pollution from its Vermilion coal-ash pits to leach into groundwater and into the Middle Fork River.

Senate Bill 9 — backed by Sen. Scott Bennett, D-Champaign, and Reps. Carol Ammons, D-Champaign, and Mike Marron, R-Danville — requires a coal-ash impoundment owner to submit to the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency a “closure alternatives analysis” addressing several closure scenarios and options laid out in the legislation.

It would give the EPA the authority to choose the safest plan for coal-ash remediation.

It also creates initial fees of $50,000 for each closed coal-ash plant and $75,000 for those that have not yet been closed. Owners of operational impoundments would then pay an annual fee of $25,000, and a $15,000 fee would be charged for closed plants that had not yet completed “post-closure care.”

The fees would be paid into the Environmental Protection Permit and Inspection Fund to be used for regulation purposes.

“Coal ash is a public health issue and a pollution issue, and the state of Illinois is taking action to keep communities safe,” Pritzker said. “This new law will protect our precious groundwater and rivers from toxic chemicals that can harm our residents. With the Trump administration loosening standards on coal ash, Illinois is raising the bar to protect our environment and the health of people across our state.”

Payment plan laid out

Coal-ash impoundment owners would also be required to provide bonds ensuring safe closure and remediation of coal-ash pits in case of disaster.

Per the bill, the only acceptable form of bond would include “a trust fund, a surety bond guaranteeing payment, a surety bond guaranteeing performance, or an irrevocable letter of credit.”

If any company is forced to forfeit bond proceeds to the state, the money would go into a newly created Coal Combustion Residual Surface Impoundment Financial Assurance Fund to be used for appropriate closure or remediation purposes.

Senate Bill 9 also prohibits coal-ash discharge into the environment and directs the IEPA to propose new rules to the Pollution Control Board governing the regulation of coal ash, including permit application requirements and what the threshold for “complete removal” is.

Chamber among critics

While advocates said the bill was a significant step forward for clean air and water, Illinois Chamber of Commerce President Todd Maisch said he has concerns the new law will “impede the state’s ability to address the cleanup of coal-ash ponds in Illinois.”

The chamber said the bill should allow a coal-ash owner to purchase insurance to cover its financial assurance obligations along with the other types of allowable bonding.

The chamber also raised concerns that the bill prohibits taking certain actions without a permit, which “could put employers in immediate noncompliance” for continuing to operate their facilities while the regulatory program is adopted and permits granted.

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit news service operated by the Illinois Press Foundation. Its mission is to provide credible and unbiased coverage of state government to the more than 400 daily and weekly newspapers that are members of the Illinois Press Association.