Law targets cleanup at four Metro East coal ash sites

By Bob Pieper for Chronicle Media

Ameren power station in Venice has not burned coal since the mid 1970’s. (Photo courtesy of BuiltStLouis)

Gov. J.B. Pritzker, July 30, signed legislation designed to prevent coal ash pollution and facilitate clean up at coal ash-contaminated sites — including four Metro East sites.

“Coal ash is a public health issue and a pollution issue, and the state of Illinois is taking action to keep communities safe,” said Pritzker. “This new law will protect our precious groundwater and rivers from toxic chemicals that can harm our residents.”

“With SB 9 becoming law, Illinois clearly demonstrates that we are not content to simply respond to environmental catastrophes after they occur, but instead that we will stand up and protect our homes and families from those risks,” concurred State Sen. Scott Bennett (D- Champaign). “This is comprehensive, proactive legislation that provides the protections, regulations and financial assurances that we need to prevent more coal ash crises in our communities.”

The Illinois Coal Ash Pollution Prevention Act (Senate Bill 9) amends the state Environmental Protection Act to effectively prohibit coal ash discharge into the environment, according to a summary from the governor’s office.

It requires the owners or operators of “coal combustion residual (CCR) surface impoundments,” such as landfills and piles, to obtain permits from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA), which will also have to approve the closing of any such facilities.

The law requires assurances that CCR owners and operators have the financial resources to cover costs for adequate site maintenance and the eventual closing of their facilities.

It also authorizes stricter standards for coal ash cleanup and mandates public comment periods prior to the closing of coal ash sites.

If necessary, the new law also allows the IEPA funding to step in and run cleanup programs; using funds raised through fees charged for the newly required permits.

“By signing this bill into law, Gov. Pritzker has taken a historic step in protecting communities and the environment from dangerous coal ash pollution across Illinois,” said Colleen Smith, legislative director for the Illinois Environmental Council. “Now, polluters will be held responsible for the cleanup of their toxic waste — not residents of Illinois.”

To implement the new legislation, the IEPA must, within the next eight months, propose new rules to the state Pollution Control Board for the regulation of coal ash in the state.  The new rules are to then be implemented within 12 months.

The new law comes in the wake of a November 2018 analysis of federally required water quality monitoring – compiled by the Environmental Integrity Project, Earthjustice, the Prairie Rivers Network and the Sierra Club — which found Illinois has more coal ash ponds leaching unsafe levels of contaminants into groundwater than any other state in the nation.

Such pollution can pose health risks for humans; as coal ash can contain chemicals and heavy metals, including arsenic, mercury and lead, that have been linked to cancer, heart disease, reproductive issues and brain damage in children, according to the report.

Of the 16 Illinois sites at which the report found substantial coal ash pollution in groundwater, four are power generation sites in or near Metro East:

  • The Prairie State Energy Campus near Marissa,
  • The Baldwin Energy Complex in Baldwin,
  • The closed Wood River Power Plant in East Alton, and
  • Ameren Missouri’s Venice Power Station in Venice.

The Prairie State Energy Campus near Marissa is one of the 16 Illinois sites which were cited as having substantial coal ash pollution in groundwater. (Photo courtesy of Prairie State Energy)

Ground water near each was found to contain dangerously elevated concentrations of arsenic, boron, sulfate and other chemicals, according to the report.

Of greatest concern are ash ponds near the Venice Power Station, which were found to be contaminating groundwater on the edge of the Mississippi River, according to the report.

In all, the report found 90 percent of Illinois’ reporting coal-fired power plants have contaminated groundwater nearby.

Once reaching groundwater, the pollutants do not degrade over time, the report emphasizes. The Venice Power Station has not burned coal since the mid 1970’s, the report notes.

Supporters of the legislation note that majority of Illinois’ coal ash impoundments are in areas with significant low-income populations. Several are in areas with large minority populations including the long-closed Venice plant.

Illinois becomes the third state to enact coal ash waste rules, following Virginia and North Carolina.

Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee, and other states have been considering similar legislation.

The new law comes as the federal government is easing environmental restrictions in an effort to shore up the nation’s coal industry.

“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,” Gov. Pritzker said.

The new Illinois coal ash regulations are to be developed by IEPA within eight months and must satisfy the following requirements:

  • Must be at least as protective and comprehensive as the federal regulations or amendment promulgated by the U.S. EPA
  • Specify the minimum contents of permit applications.
  • Specify which types of permits include requirements for closure, post-closure, remediation, and other requirements.
  • Specify when permit applications must be submitted.
  • Specify standards for review and approval by IEPA for permit applications.
  • Specify meaningful public participation procedures and other methods and procedures.
  • Prescribe the type and amount of the performance bonds or other securities required.
  • Specify a procedure to identify areas of environmental justice concern.
  • Specify a method to prioritize CCR surface impoundments required to close if not specified by the U.S. EPA.
  • Define when complete removal is achieved.
  • Describe the process for identifying an alternative source of contamination when the owner/operator believes it is not from the impoundment.