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Courtesy of the Illinois Sierra Club.

Map showing coal ash sites in Illinois, spill sites and areas of high hazard, according to the Sierra Club.

Illinois residents call for stronger regulation of coal ash pits

by Farahnaz Mohammed
May 15, 2014


Image courtesy of the Illinois Sierra Club.

Map showing coal ash sites nationwide, spill sites and areas of high hazard.


Courtesy of Jeff Lucas / Eco-Justice Collaborative.

Coal ash pond near Vermillion River in Oakwood.

At hearings held Wednesday and Thursday, Illinois residents called for stricter controls of coal ash pits.

The Illinois Pollution Control Board held hearings at the Thompson Center on proposed regulations that would strengthen linings of coal ash pits but wouldn't remove them or hold companies financially responsible for leaks or spills.

Scientists and residents contend that coal ash pits potentially spread toxic chemicals, such as arsenic and lead, into drinking water and carry serious public health risks.

At the Wednesday hearing, residents asked for increased alternative energy sources in Illinois, and also that energy companies be made responsible for paying for any potential damage caused by coal ash spills so that the financial burden of cleanup does not fall on communities.

“Illinois has the opportunity to do the right thing and set the standard,” said resident Rene Schieiner. She pointed to an increased risk of getting cancer from drinking water that could potentially be contaminated by arsenic from coal ash pits.


Katy Sullivan, Dynegy Inc. public relations director, said in a phone interview that the proposal did seem to offer site-specific flexibility and Dynegy would be looking to work collaboratively within that. The company operates power plants across the U.S. including in Illinois.

Addressing the contamination caused by coal ash, she said, "We have an active inspection program which includes visual inspection and groundwater monitoring," and stated that Dynegy does "look to that as part of our our responsibility as an Illinois provider."

Sullivan indicated that Dynegy's long-term objective is not to put coal ash into ponds, but to recycle it for other uses in asphalt and construction.

Coal ash is a mixture of the byproducts of coal combustion for power plants and other waste. It contains numerous hazardous toxins, including mercury and arsenic. According to a report from the Sierra Club, “living near coal ash ponds is significantly more dangerous than smoking a pack of cigarettes a day.”

Coal ash pits are often found near bodies of water because of power plants’ reliance on water for industrial activity. This increases the risk of water contamination from coal ash, according to the Sierra Club report on the pits.

“With 58 operating coal ash dams and 15 “legacy” ponds that still pose a danger to adjacent communities, Illinois ranks first in the nation in total number of coal ash ponds,” according to the report.

At the hearing, Patricia Walter from Glenview, who worked for 40 years in downtown Chicago, said she's a three-time survivor of breast cancer and spoke about the importance of maintaining a healthy environment.

Marcia Powell said that, as well as public health risks, she also was concerned with insuring the recreational use and safety of Lake Michigan. “More swimming, less videogames,” she said.

The flurry of action takes place following an incident in North Carolina in February, where a stormwater pipe burst underneath a coal ash pit. It is estimated that 39,000 tons of coal ash flowed into the Dan River, contaminating drinking water. Duke Energy, responsible for the plant where the pipe burst, accepted responsibility and has stated they will assume costs for clean-up.

Some Illinois coal ash pits have one lining to prevent leakage of harmful elements into water, while U.S. EPA guidelines recommends two. Some have no lining, according to the Environmental Law and Policy Center.

The Thursday hearing allowed stakeholders and representatives of energy companies such as Dynegy to question environmental groups regarding specific points in their proposal of changes to regulation. Points raised included clarification of sections requiring closure of malfunctioning power units if attempts to repair them were unsuccessful and the number of data points required for acceptable statistical analysis of water.

Prior to the hearings, community members and environmental groups held a teleconference to highlight the importance of regulations.

“Our lives in Lake County center around Lake Michigan. It is where we get our drinking water, it is where children play in the summer and it is even where families in the Waukegan community fish for sustenance,” said Maryfran Troha, a Lake County resident, during the teleconference. Troha lives near to NRG Energy’s coal plant in Waukegan. “Our community and our lake deserve stronger protections.”