Sierra Club opposes coal-ash water dump

Dynegy’s Wood River power plant in East Alton seeks permit for process environmentalists call ‘cap and run’

Trees wither along the shore of a coal-ash pond. (Wikimedia Commons/Ansh Mishra)

Trees wither along the shore of a coal-ash pond. (Wikimedia Commons/Ansh Mishra)

By Ted Cox

The Sierra Club and other environmental groups are rallying opposition at an upcoming public hearing that would potentially allow a shuttered East Alton power plant to dump water contaminated with coal ash into Wood River Creek as part of a process environmentalists deride as “cap and run.”

The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency has a hearing set for April 30 in Alton on a proposed permit that would allow the Vistra-Dynegy energy company to dump water from the coal-ash ponds at its Wood River Power Station into the creek, which ultimately flows into the Mississippi River. Dynegy closed the coal-powered plant in 2016, but the ponds of coal ash — a toxic mix of coal waste products — remain.

The company proposes to alter its permit to allow it to remove water from the ponds and then close them without removing the coal ash — a process environmentalists call “cap and run.”

The IEPA emphasized that Vistra-Dynegy already has a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System Permit for discharges from the existing ash ponds on site, but that it’s up for renewal with modifications related to removing water from the ponds in accordance with state and federal regulations.

“The NPDES permit has always allowed discharges of wastewater from the ash ponds during operation,” said IEPA spokeswoman Kim Biggs. “This public hearing is an opportunity for the public to provide comments on the draft modified permit prior to the agency making a final decision.”

A report issued in November by the Sierra Club, Earthjustice, the Prairie Rivers Network, and the Environmental Integrity Project titled “Cap and Run” charged that there are two dozen coal-ash ponds in Illinois — meaning retention ponds containing coal ash — and that 22 have “unsafe concentrations of dangerous coal-ash pollutants.”

According to the report, it found “dangerously elevated concentrations of arsenic, boron, lithium, molybdenum, and sulfate” at the Wood River coal-ash ponds, and that locally “arsenic in groundwater wells exceeds safe levels by six times, boron exceeds EPA health thresholds by 23 times, molybdenum is nearly nine times safe levels, and sulfate is nearly double EPA’s health threshold.”

The Sierra Club’s Illinois Chapter and its Piasa Palisades Group maintain that the shuttered Wood River plant site has at least four ponds containing coal ash, and “it appears that none of these ash ponds is lined,” meaning the toxic and carcinogenic chemicals can leach into surrounding ground and water supplies.

According to the Sierra Club: “The Primary Ash Pond  (East Ash Pond) contains coal ash, within coal ash, on top of coal ash: it was built on top of ash and its berms are made of ash as well.” It maintains that the plan to pump the water out of the ponds and close them down, without removing the deposits of coal ash, “will not stop the ongoing flow of dangerous contamination into groundwater and the Wood River.”

Toni Oplt of the Metro East Green Alliance wrote in a recent letter to the Alton Telegraph that “cap and run” is “an approach where coal-ash pits are covered with a cap that keeps out rain water but doesn’t stop leakage through unlined or inadequately lined bottoms, allowing toxins to leach into groundwater.”

And that’s entirely besides emptying the water into the creek, Wood River, and ultimately the Mississippi. The groups also raised concerns “because these coal-ash ponds are located near the Mississippi River which floods regularly, and (we) do not believe this is an appropriate location to store coal ash.”

Vistra, which bought Dynegy last year, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The public hearing is set for 6 p.m. April 30 at the RiverBender Community Center, 200 W. 3rd St., Alton. The Piasa Palisades Group is also holding what it calls a “briefing” at the same location at 6 p.m. Wednesday to prepare people on how best to make comments along with other information on the IEPA hearing.

The Sierra Club warned that, under the IEPA’s current system, “this is the only opportunity we have to provide comment on a coal-ash closure plan.” It urged the state to “hold polluters accountable for the toxic messes they have made (and) require owners of coal-ash dumps to set aside money for cleanup and rehabilitation of lands.