By Gwenna Heidkamp
On a balmy summer day in early July, a few friends and I rented kayaks and moseyed our way down the Middle Fork of the Vermillion River, enjoying Illinois’ only officially designated national scenic river. As hawks circled overhead, small fish followed us along the current. Closing our eyes, we could hear birds chirping in the trees and laughter from fellow explorers as we floated along the water, soaking in the amazing vistas. So much biodiversity and life surrounded that tiny patch of heaven: turtles popping up every so often between the lush grasses along the riverbank; rocks big and small rising above the water; small fish swimming under the kayaks; and birds perched on branches hanging over the river, hunting for food.
But as we meandered along, I saw something that didn’t fit with the idyllic scenery: an orange liquid seeping out of an eroded bank. Oozing like venom, the unnatural liquid was flowing freely into the water. The vibrant river seemed dead around that spot; no life could be spotted anywhere near the polluted bank. Where had this life-killing seepage come from?
Not easily seen from the Middle Fork, about a half a mile away, is a retired coal-fired power plant, Vermilion Power Station, with three coal ash ponds.
What is coal ash, and why is it so dangerous?
After coal is burned for fuel, the coal byproduct is placed in surface impoundments called coal ash ponds. While the intent is to prevent ash from entering the atmosphere, an unintended consequence has slowly emerged: dangerous chemicals leaching into our natural water systems. Dug in the river’s floodplain, the ponds contain toxic byproducts such as mercury, cadmium, and arsenic. Compounding multiple chemicals together can bring catastrophic results, creating cancer-causing toxins that leave deformed fish and death in their wake. These toxins are contaminating groundwater, rivers, lakes, and streams throughout Illinois and across the country.
In late November 2018, four environmental advocacy groups jointly released a report stating that 22 of the 24 Illinois coal-fired power plants that publicly reported groundwater monitoring data on their websites (because of new transparency requirements imposed by 2015 federal coal ash regulations) have contaminated groundwater with unsafe levels of toxic pollutants. All over Illinois, it’s the same story: chemical runoff at rates greater than the legal limit.
A Threat to Water and Wildlife
One nasty side effect of coal ash pollution is the ecological damage to wildlife in the local rivershed. Aquatic Biologist Alison Stodola from the Illinois Natural History Survey (INHS) says coal ash may form “toxic cocktails,” resulting in a “stronger impact (on wildlife) because these elements are together.” The base standard levels set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are determined by single-element exposure, so the safe limit on this combination of coal ash pollutants has never been tested. With this exposure comes an often-overlooked danger in a natural system: bioaccumulation within organisms. Put simply, toxins spread through the food chain as organisms eat one another.
A study in North Carolina addressed the eco-toxicological implications of aquatic disposal of coal combustion residues (CCRs), or coal ash, in the United States. Researchers found that when CCRs seep into waterways, toxic chemicals branch out into many different environments. Trace amounts of mercury or arsenic are toxic to embryonic fish and amphibians. These toxins can also be eaten by macroinvertebrates when they dig for food in the bottom sediment. Eventually, these macroinvertebrates will be eaten by the small fish populations, which are then eaten by bigger fish. At each level of predation, more and more toxins accumulate. The fish are then eaten by humans or birds, which can lead to lethal consequences higher up the food chain. Furthermore, these chemicals are persistent. Mercury, cadmium, and arsenic are metals, so they can never be broken down into natural compounds. Together, these factors create the strong possibility for serious damage to fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals. The North Carolina study projected a 75 percent mortality rate for aquatic organisms with prolonged exposure to leached coal ash.
Back in Illinois, Alison Stodola predicts coal ash could have a serious impact on the state-protected species of bluebreast darters and wavy-rayed lampmussels if toxic levels drastically increase in the Middle Fork River. As benthic species, these tiny fish and mussels that burrow into the bottom river sediment are “very vulnerable as juveniles and larvae,” as the heavy metals from coal ash that settle to the bottom can accumulate in their cells and tissues. If a coal ash spill occurs, the small-bodied fish and mussels can’t escape because of their inability to move more than a short distance. It could prove fatal for those endangered species — a definite cause for concern in the long-term health of our food chain and natural environment.
Yet the negative impacts of coal ash pollution do not stop at our food chain. From the coal ash ponds next to the Vermillion River, the toxic water can percolate through the layers of soil and rock into the groundwater. This can be catastrophic for the local aquifer. In central Illinois, the Mahomet Aquifer supplies more than 50 percent of drinking water to 15 counties. Any contamination of the aquifer will leave many counties — and their residents — with no clean drinking water.
Another major issue is flooding. Vermilion Power’s coal ash ponds lie within the floodplain of the Middle Fork River. In a torrential downpour, the coal ash ponds could be overwhelmed and spill over into the river. Likewise, the Middle Fork could flood and sweep the ponds, pulling the toxic sludge into the river. There are 46.1 miles of biologically significant stream along the Middle Fork. Any contamination there would flow down the Vermillion River, then into Indiana via the Wabash River, then head toward the Ohio River, which joins the Mississippi River and eventually empties into the Gulf of Mexico. Although a small amount of contamination in one small scenic river in Illinois might not seem disastrous, it can affect a large section of the country and cause aquatic life to suffer far downstream.
Too Little Regulation Too Late?
Unfortunately, coal contamination isn’t limited to just the Middle Fork. Coal pollution is happening all over the state and nationwide.
Since 1811, when Abraham Lincoln was a small boy, Illinois has had a storied history of mining and burning coal for energy. The state currently has 24 Coal Combustion Residual Surface Impoundments, and many do not have proper lining due to their age. When the pits aren’t lined, the toxic chemicals often filter down through the soil during a heavy rain and end up in the groundwater, creating unsafe drinking water conditions, causing deformities in fish, and degrading biodiversity in the region. The Illinois EPA has required new ash pits to be lined since the 1990s to prevent those unintended consequences. Coal ash ponds must now have a composite liner consisting of a geomembrane and a 2-foot layer of compacted soil or an alternative equal in performance.
In Vermilion County, resident activists have fought for stricter measures to contain the now-inactive Vermilion Power Station next to the Middle Fork River. Originally run by Illinois Power Co., the plant came online in 1955, providing reliable energy and stable jobs, while also actively dumping coal ash into three different ponds. Dynegy took over the plant in 2000 before closing it in 2011. Despite the closure, the coal ash ponds remained haphazardly buried near the banks of the Middle Fork. To date, Dynegy has been cited twice for groundwater violations by the Illinois EPA. The company has conducted studies that found the ponds will fail eventually, yet it still has refused to remove the coal ash or prevent contamination of the nearby waterway. Dynegy opponents are continuing the fight to force the company to clean up the ponds.
Unfortunately, waiting to act until an environmental disaster has already occurred is a recurring theme in environmental regulation. In 2008, a dike failure at Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston Fossil Plant released more than 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash into a pond and river channel. This caused destruction of property, miles of ruined shoreline, and ecological ruin. The cleanup cost more than $1.1 billion and took more than six years to complete. Tragically, out of the nearly 900 laborers who worked to clean up the disaster, 30 workers died and more than 250 are known to be chronically ill from toxin exposure.
Due to coal ash spills like the one in Tennessee, the EPA created new guidelines for Coal Ash Disposal. In 2015, a final rule was established on the proper disposal of coal combustion residuals in order to reduce the risk of catastrophic failure, protect groundwater, and define operating criteria, record-keeping, and closure procedures. In the case of Tennessee, these measures came too late. And what’s worse, in October 2020, the EPA changed the 2015 regulation to loosen the rules on linings, allowing companies that own the 65 percent of coal ash ponds that are unlined to argue their method is effective. This deregulation creates a clear and immediate danger, as many coal ash ponds won’t be required to modernize disposal technology and protocols.
In the past, power plants provided essential jobs and energy for the local community, but now, as power plants age, they pose a grave risk to community safety. In Vermilion County, the community response has been upfront and direct: Residents want the Vermilion Power Plant coal ash by the Middle Fork River removed permanently. Lan Richart of the Eco-Justice Collaborative is a strong proponent of citizen action to pressure elected officials. For the past two years, Richart and his wife Pam have been actively organizing rallies and information sessions for the river’s central stakeholders: the general public. They want everyone in central Illinois to know how the coal ash issue directly impacts the Middle Fork. Information turned into action at an impassioned Illinois EPA hearing in March 2019, where more than 250 people showed up to voice their complaints about Dynegy and waved signs saying, “Dynegy … Move Your Ash!”
Can New Legislation Save Us?
For Tennessee, strong environmental regulation against coal ash was enacted only after disaster struck. For Illinois, the catastrophe may be imminent. If an exceptionally intense storm or spring flood occurs, the banks along the Middle Fork may collapse, releasing thousands of tons of coal ash into the Vermillion River. Time is of the essence; every year that laws, regulations, and plans are stalled in court or in legislatures represents lost time to protect our rivers and aquifers.
Fortunately, the state of Illinois has begun to react to this potential crisis. A coal ash pollution prevention bill was signed into law on July 30, 2019. This bill set strict regulations for disposing of coal ash, cleaning it up, and preventing pollution. It also addresses who will pay the cleanup costs. The bill puts the responsibility firmly onto the power plant owners instead of future taxpayers. It also requires owners to pay fees to store the coal ash, which guarantees the availability of a cleanup fund if the company goes bankrupt or shuts down.
Moving forward, it is not a matter of if a cleanup will be needed, but when. As rivers and water are a common good, the most economically feasible way to deal with the coal ash threat is to have the company responsible clean it up. Harm is almost certain to happen down the line, and requiring future generations to pay for it is unacceptable.
For the Middle Fork coal ash, the Illinois EPA has required Dynegy to stabilize the riverbank or come up with another solution to prevent seepage. The company submitted a permit application to the Illinois EPA for bank stabilization, but the project as designed was found to be below standards set by the Army Corps of Engineers and National Park Service. Dynegy has since withdrawn its permit application and has not filed a new one since July 2019. In short, efforts to remove the coal ash and prevent the contamination of the Middle Fork River have stalled.
For every moment of delay, this national scenic river in the Illinois heartland becomes more and more susceptible to environmental disaster — like the catastrophe that unfolded in Tennessee. If we want to preserve the Middle Fork River not only for ourselves but for future generations, we must urge our state and national governments to act quickly to protect our precious waterways. I hope my next kayak trip down the river is filled with the lush beauty and captivating wildlife I saw that balmy July day, and that I’ll be spared the sight of toxic runoff poisoning one of the most pristine and biodiverse regions in central Illinois. The hawks circling overhead, the turtles sunbathing on the rocks, the fish darting to and fro, and the birds nesting along our majestic waterway need clean water to survive.
About the Author …
Gwenna Heidkamp is from Riverwoods, Ill. She graduated in May 2020 with a B.S. in Earth, Society, and Environmental Sustainability while also earning the Certificate in Environmental Writing. She is currently working at the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center in University of Illinois Research Park.
This article was written for ESE 498, the capstone course in the Certificate in Environmental Writing, in Spring 2020.