Pollution panel raps coal contamination

Illinois Pollution Control Board rules coal plants contaminated water in Waukegan, Pekin, Joliet, Will County

The Waukegan coal power plant was found to have contributed to contaminated groundwater. (Flickr/Bulls Fan)

The Waukegan coal power plant was found to have contributed to contaminated groundwater. (Flickr/Bulls Fan)

By Ted Cox

The Illinois Pollution Control Board has ruled that coal power plants have led to contaminated groundwater in four communities located in Waukegan, Pekin, Joliet, and Will County.

The panel sided with environmental groups in a 7-year-old suit against Midwest Generation, a subsidiary of NRG Energy.

According to a news release put out by the Sierra Club: “The IPCB agreed with the groups’ claim that the contaminants from coal ash at the power plants, including arsenic, boron, sulfate, and other chemicals, routinely exceeded water-quality standards and, thus, violated the Illinois Environmental Protection Act. The groups alleged that NRG Energy’s subsidiary Midwest Generation, which has owned or operated the four power plants since 1999, knew about coal-ash contaminants both in and outside coal-ash ponds and failed to prevent groundwater contamination.”

The panel will next decide on appropriate remedies, and the environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, Environmental Law & Policy Center, Prairie Rivers Network, and Citizens Against Ruining the Environment, vowed to “fight for the most stringent remedy possible, including a demand for removal of coal-ash dumps at the coal power plants.”

The Trump administration has worked to ease restrictions on coal, but Illinois has bucked the trend, with the Pritzker administration recently reaching a deal for Vistra Energy to shut some of its eight coal power plants in central and southern Illinois. The IPCB has also clamped down on coal regulations proposed by former Gov. Rauner, working to tighten allowable emission limits, while environmental groups pursue new restrictions on coal-ash ponds, blamed for contaminating groundwater, as was found to be the case at the four sites in the ruling handed down a week ago.

Dulce Ortiz, of Clean Power Lake County, called it “a huge victory for Waukegan residents who have fought for years to see corporations like NRG Energy held accountable for the toxic waste that has been illegally dumped on our Lake Michigan lakefront.” She called the decision “a sharp rebuttal to NRG and Midwest Generation’s claims that they weren’t responsible for groundwater contamination from its dangerous coal-ash waste. It’s critical that NRG is required to remove its toxic ash from our lakefront.”

Romeoville resident Ellen Rendulich labeled it “a historic win for Citizens’ Against Ruining the Environment and Will County residents who have carried the burden of living next to NRG’s aging power plants and toxic coal ash waste for decades,” adding, “Our communities deserve to have this out-of-state corporation’s waste removed from these sites, and NRG must be responsible for this cleanup.”

“There is a moral obligation to ensure that polluters are held accountable for the impact they have on the groundwater of Illinois communities,” said Faith Bugel, a Sierra Club attorney. “The board’s decision calls NRG out, and we urge the board to impose a remedy that holds out-of-state companies accountable for cleaning up the pollution they dump in Illinois.”

Jeffrey Hammons, an attorney with the Environmental Law & Policy Center, said it set a powerful precedent in that it “affirms the broad scope of the Illinois Environmental Protection Act’s prohibition on water pollution and puts owners or operators of sites with coal ash on notice of their obligation to not pollute groundwater.” He warned, “Companies that run afoul of Illinois’s groundwater quality standards due to their improper handling of coal ash do so at their own peril.”

“Today's decision is an important step in holding polluters accountable for their coal-ash messes,” said Andrew Rehn, water resources engineer at Prairie Rivers Network. “NRG's coal-ash ponds at Waukegan, Joliet, Pekin, and Will County have been polluting our groundwater for years. We hope that the Illinois Pollution Control Board makes NRG remove the coal-ash dumps on their property and store it in safe facilities.”

According to National Public Radio Illinois, NRG Energy spokesman David Knox issued a statement in response saying: “Midwest Generation, which was acquired by NRG in 2014, has worked cooperatively with the IEPA over many years to continually take steps to protect the environment, including entering into compliance commitment agreements and implementing groundwater management zones.”

He called the issues raised in the case “complex,” and blamed “historic activities that occurred under the prior utility ownership of the plants” for the violations.

The General Assembly passed the Coal Ash Cleanup and Storage Act this spring, creating new restrictions on coal-ash ponds and how they should be dealt with, and it awaits Gov. Pritzker’s signature.