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Long after they have shut down, coal-fired power plants continue to pollute groundwater at dozens of sites in Illinois.

The Vermilion Power Station, a relatively small coal-fired power plant northwest of Danville, shut down 10 years ago this spring. While the plant no longer generates electricity or employs anyone, it continues to pollute nearby groundwater with a stew of dangerous chemicals and compounds, including boron, arsenic, manganese, sulfate and more.

The pollution is seeping from three large coal ash ponds on the power plant property, the residue of about 56 years’ worth of coal burned at the plant that originally was operated by Illinois Power Co. and later by Dynegy. The ash ponds are unlined, meaning there is nothing keeping pollutants from leaching freely into groundwater and, even more disheartening, from contaminating the nearby Middle Fork of the Vermilion River.

The Middle Fork is Illinois’ only national scenic river. It’s a recreational attraction for people from all over the Midwest. But its beauty and serenity is threatened by the nearby ash ponds. The recent leak of toxins into Tampa Bay from an abandoned Florida fertilizer plant is a reminder of how insubstantial some environmental protections are.

Last week, the Illinois Pollution Control Board took a significant step toward beginning to clean up the legacy of the state’s two dozen coal ash plants. It adopted new rules that require the owners of coal ash ponds — whether closed or active — to get operating permits or, when they intend to close them, construction permits. That will help ensure that the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency is satisfied with the plans for closing ash ponds, whether that means simply capping them or in some cases safely removing all of the coal ash. It also guarantees a transparent process with public input.

In the case of the Vermilion Power Station ash ponds, the new Pollution Control Board rules are a backstop for legal efforts already underway to force Dynegy’s new owner, Vistra Energy, to use best scientific practices to clean up the ponds.

Aside from protecting the Mahomet Aquifer, the source of drinking water for much of East Central Illinois, preserving the beauty and purity of the Middle Fork may be the No. 2 environmental concern in this region.

On Thursday we celebrate Earth Day, an opportunity to recognize the natural beauty around us and to renew our commitment to fully protecting it, in particular our great scenic river.

Columnist

Tom Kacich is a columnist and the author of Tom's Mailbag at The News-Gazette. His column appears Sundays. His email is tkacich@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@tkacich).

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