Illinois Pollution Control Board hearing brings cries against coal ash
News-Sun Staff Report May 16, 2014 1:00PM
Updated: May 16, 2014 8:43PM
LAKE COUNTY — Community members who live near coal ash waste sites in Waukegan, Lake County and across Illinois testified Wednesday and Thursday before the Illinois Pollution Control Board to demand tougher protections against pollution.
Adjacent to the Waukegan coal plant now owned by New Jersey power company NRG Energy are two coal ash pits, totaling 104 million gallons, sitting right next to Lake Michigan. Coal ash is the waste material left after coal is burned. It is full of heavy metals, such as mercury, lead and arsenic, which can cause cancer and brain damage in humans and are toxic to fish and wildlife.
In 2012, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency issued notices of violation for excessive levels of dangerous groundwater pollutants at the coal ash ponds in Waukegan, as well as three other coal plants formerly owned by Midwest Generation. While some corrective measures have been taken, community members feel more protections are still needed to safeguard groundwater and Lake Michigan.
“Having two coal ash ponds right next to Lake Michigan that have a history of groundwater contamination presents a real threat for that body of water,” said Traci Barkley, water resources scientist with Prairie Rivers Network. “Strong rules on coal ash waste from Gov. Quinn and state agencies will help protect communities like Waukegan from the undue liability of having to clean up messes from polluters.”
Over a dozen residents from Waukegan and Lake County testified at the Illinois Pollution Control Board hearings in Chicago on Wednesday. They also delivered hundreds of additional public comments from other community members urging stronger coal ash protections.
Community members, environmental organizations and public health experts also asked that power companies be required to provide financial assurances so that taxpayers aren’t left paying the bill for coal ash disaster clean-up.
“Coal ash pollution presents significant threats to public health and water quality,” said Mary Mathews from the League of Women Voters of Lake County and a Lake Forest resident. “State agencies and elected officials should be doing more to ensure that such an important body of water like Lake Michigan is better protected from the threats of coal ash pollution in Waukegan.”
The hearings come in the aftermath of this winter’s coal ash disaster in North Carolina, where toxic coal ash flowed through a broken pipe into the Dan River, spreading contaminants as far as 70 miles downstream. That disaster, which could cost up to $1 billion to clean up, could have been avoided if alarms raised by community groups and citizens for years had been heeded.
As written, the state’s proposed rules fall severely short of protecting Illinois communities from the serious harm that coal ash pits pose. Furthermore, the state’s rules fall short of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s considerations of a federal coal ash rule that would protect communities.
“Knowing the weaknesses in existing protections increases the concern about coal ash ponds like one in Waukegan, which is so close Lake Michigan,” said Faith Bugel, senior attorney with the Environmental Law & Policy Center. “Coal ash ponds around the state need tougher standards to protect surrounding communities.”
“Our lives in Lake County center around Lake Michigan. It is where we get our drinking water, it is where our children play in the summer and it is even where families in the Waukegan community fish for sustenance,” said Maryfran Troha, a Lake County resident who lives near NRG Energy’s Waukegan coal plant. “In Waukegan we have coal ash pits, with a history of contamination, sitting right next to Lake Michigan and our community and our lake deserves stronger protections.”