Threat: Coal Ash

The beautiful and ecologically-vibrant Middle Fork of the Vermilion, Illinois’ only Wild and Scenic River, is the centerpiece of a major recreational area and home to numerous unique and endangered species. It is also home to over three million cubic yards of toxic coal ash from the Vermilion Power Station. The owner of the station, Dynegy, wants to permanently leave the coal ash in three unlined pits along the banks of the river. Coal ash contaminants are seeping into the Middle Fork and the natural forces of the meandering river are rapidly eroding the riverbank next to the ash pits. The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency must require Dynegy to clean up its site to avoid catastrophe and an expensive cleanup that would burden taxpayers for years.

Take action: Ask the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency to require Dynegy to clean up its coal ash before they contaminate Illinois’ only Wild and Scenic River more.

About The River

Children enjoy tubing along the Middle Fork Vermilion. | Photo: Pam Richart, Eco-Justice Collaborative

The Middle Fork Vermilion’s waters are clear, fast-running, and punctuated with boulders and riffles that create habitat for gamefish and attract paddlers. The river is flanked by nearly 10,000 acres of public land and boasts tall bluffs, forested bottomlands, wildflowers and abundant wildlife. The bluebreast darter and silvery salamander are among the 24 state-threatened or endangered species that rely on the ecological health of the river and adjacent open space. The Collins Archaeological District, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is located along the east bank of the river and includes 1000-year-old burial mounds.

The Middle Fork flows through the heart of Kickapoo State Park, which attracts more than one million visitors each year. Angling, photography and wildlife viewing are popular activities, and visitors often swim in or tube down the river on hot summer days. A local guide company sends more than 10,000 paddlers down the river in warm-weather months on a 13-mile river trail that brings them directly past the coal ash pits.

Downstream, the Middle Fork merges with the Salt Fork to form the Vermilion River, which flows through Danville, a city of 32,000. Danville is currently redeveloping its riverfront and intends to link this revitalized open space to the city’s adjacent downtown as a way of attracting tourists and boosting their local economy.

The Threat

Unlined coal ash pits along the banks of the Middle Fork Vermilion River, IL. | Photo: Jeff Lucas, Gutting the Heartland

In 2011, Dynegy closed the Vermilion Power Station— a former coal-fired power plant on the only private inholding along 17 miles of Wild and Scenic river. The plant sits on the bluff above the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River, and the 3.3 million cubic yards of coal ash produced over its 55-year operating life were dumped into three massive pits in the floodplain below. Inside the unlined coal ash pits, the groundwater saturates the coal ash, then seeps continuously into the Middle Fork. Contaminants stain the riverbank and create stagnant orange pools when the river is at low flow. Coal ash contaminants can include arsenic, barium, boron, chromium, iron, lead, manganese, molybdenum, nickel and sulfate, which are known to cause birth defects, cancer and neurological damage in humans and can harm and kill wildlife, especially fish.

The coal ash pits were built irresponsibly close to the river. The erosion rate of the bank next to these pits suggests that the Middle Fork will compromise the impoundments in the next 8 to 18 years, but a record flood could cause a breach at any time. Previous attempts at bank reinforcement to stop erosion have not been sustainable and can be found in tatters on the bank.

The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a Notice of Groundwater Violation in 2012, but the violation has not been addressed. Dynegy is now seeking approval to install new bank stabilization measures, then cap and leave the coal ash pits. Simply capping an unlined ash pit will not stop the groundwater contamination, nor can the armoring prevent the eventual failure from the erosive force of the river. In fact, as climate change brings higher and more frequent peak flood flows, the chance of failure is only increasing.

This year, 2018, marks the 50th anniversary of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and is a time to redouble our national commitment to protecting these natural treasures. Dynegy’s plan to cap the coal ash and leave it in place will not eliminate the long-term threat to the river. Future generations will inherit a toxic liability and taxpayers could be left with the bill for cleanup.

What Must Be Done

Dynegy hopes to complete its studies, prepare a final report, and have a final decision on its proposal from the Illinois EPA this fall. Illinois EPA must require Dynegy to permanently halt the ongoing pollution and ensure that the ash pits do not pose a continuing threat to the Middle Fork. Dynegy must either remove the coal ash from the floodplain and store it in a safe and properly-designed disposal facility away from the river, or demonstrate that different measures will be equally as protective.

Unfortunately, there are no formal statutes that require a hearing on Dynegy’s proposal, despite the fact that five county-level organizations have passed resolutions calling for the responsible closure of these ponds. Public participation will only occur if the Illinois EPA voluntarily holds a hearing— a request that has, to date, been ignored. That is why river advocates are planning to hold their own “People’s Hearing” with expert testimony, witnesses of coal ash spills in North Carolina and Tennessee, and opportunities for the public to ask questions and raise concerns. Public comments will be delivered to the Illinois EPA and Governor’s office to place pressure on officials to protect the crown jewel of Vermilion County by finding a permanent solution to protect this National Scenic River.