Environmentalists cheer new law on coal ash

Pritzker defies Trump trend to tighten environmental regulations

Deposits of coal ash along the Vermillion River in eastern Illinois. (Flickr/Eco-Justice Collaborative)

Deposits of coal ash along the Vermillion River in eastern Illinois. (Flickr/Eco-Justice Collaborative)

By Ted Cox

Defying President Trump’s prevailing policy to loosen environmental restrictions on businesses, Gov. Pritzker signed a bill into law Tuesday setting strict new standards in dealing with coal ash.

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

Lead sponsors in the General Assembly, Sen. Scott Bennett and Rep. Carol Ammons, both of Champaign, applauded the governor for signing Senate Bill 9 into law.

“With SB9 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,” Bennett said. “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.”

Ammons called it “a significant step toward cleaner water and air for communities living near coal ash throughout the state of Illinois,” adding, “Those who create the mess should clean it up.”

The new law, which goes into effect immediately, calls on the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency to set strict new regulations on coal ash within eight months. It also gives the IEPA additional resources to follow through by creating an Environmental Protection Permit and Inspection Fund, to be paid by the owners of power plants. According to a news release from the Governor’s Office, they’ll pay an initial fee of $50,000 for closed impoundments and $75,000 for those that haven't completed closure, followed by annual fees to kick in next July and set at $25,000 for those that haven't completed closure and $15,000 for each impoundment that's closed but hasn't completed post-closure care.

Just a month ago, the Illinois Pollution Control Board ruled against coal power plants in a 7-year-old suit, determining they led to contaminated groundwater in four communities located in Waukegan, Pekin, Joliet, and Will County.

Coal ash is blamed for contamination of the Vermillion River in eastern Illinois, and environmentalists have fought attempts to dump coal-mine wastewater in coal-ash ponds into public waterways. Southern Illinoisans Against Fracturing Our Environment and members of the Illinois Sierra Club are also fighting an attempt to run a coal mine’s wastewater through a pipeline into the Big Muddy River.

Environmentalists led praise of the new Illinois law.

“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.”


“Now, polluters will be held responsible for the cleanup of their toxic waste — not residents of Illinois.”

Colleen Smith of the Illinois Environmental Council (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

“This big step toward protecting our water supply and a clean-energy future is the result of hard work by community leaders across the state and their legislative champions,” said Jack Darin, director of the Illinois Chapter of the Sierra Club. “Cleaning up these toxic coal-ash sites is an essential step toward a just transition for these communities, and a future in which their water is protected and new jobs are created in the technologies of the future.”

Howard Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center, said it would “protect safe, clean, and drinkable water in Illinois.”

Pam Richart, co-director of the Eco-Justice Collaborative, added, “Community calls to clean up pollution from coal ash dumped on dozens of power-plant sites across the state have been ignored for far too long. This bill ensures that those living near coal ash will have a say in how these dumps are cleaned up, so that public health and local economies are protected.”

“With this law, Illinois is joining other states that are working to protect their citizens from toxic pollution from coal-ash dumps,” said Jennifer Cassel, an Earthjustice attorney based in Chicago. “For too long, utilities have been allowed to dump this pollution into unlined pits with no regard for the consequences. That will no longer be the case in Illinois.”

Dulce Ortiz of Clean Power Lake County called it “a great win for coal-ash communities, especially for Waukegan residents that have been continuously affected by corporate polluters,” adding that the governor was “sending a message that environmental-justice communities across the state are being put before profitable industrial polluters like NRG Energy.”