Environmentalists set to sue coal company for polluting national scenic river in Illinois

Photo: Prairie Rivers Network

The energy company Dynergy will be sued over allegations that waste from the company’s toxic coal ash is leaking into Illinois’s only national scenic river.

Prairie Rivers Network will argue that Dynergy is not complying with federal laws on pollution and is violating state health and environmental standards, according to a news release announcing the lawsuit.

For decades, waste left over from burning coal was dumped into ash pits, including two that are unlined and one situated above a coal mine, that were situated close to the Vermilion River.

While the Prairie Rivers Network and other conservation groups want Dynergy to remove the ash pile, it does not legally have to do so because the power plant closed down before the Environmental Protection Agency introduced a new, more stringent coal ash rule in 2015. That’s resulted in so-called “legacy ash pits” like the ones near the Vermilion.

The environmental group, which will be represented in the suit by the national Earthjustice organization, claims there is evidence toxic chemicals are leaking from the coal ash pits, and that this has “stained the riverbank a shimmery orange, rust, and purple color and turned the river water orange.”

The video below, courtesy of the Prairie Rivers Network, illustrates this:

The middle fork of the Vermilion River, designated a scenic river in 1990, is hugely popular for kayaking, canoeing, and tubing. It is also home to 20 threatened or endangered species, as well as a host of other important flora and fauna, according to the Prairie Rivers Network.

Residents living close to the plant have expressed concerns over leakage into the river and groundwater, and even a potential catastrophe if the natural erosion of the bank, or a flood, or both, allows the river water to reach the ash pits. Town hall meetings have been held on the issue.

“These illegal discharges could not be more obvious,” said Earthjustice attorney Jenny Cassel, who represents Prairie Rivers Network. “Dynegy is not above the law and should not be allowed to get away with dumping toxic heavy metals into one of the most ecologically vibrant rivers in our state.”

The Vermilion Plant near Oakwood operated from the mid-1950s and was closed in 2011. The pits contain millions of tons of ash and stretch over a half-mile of the Middle Fork’s banks. The company’s own testing and reports show that coal ash waste is leaking into groundwater and into the river, according to the Prairie Rivers Network.

Testing by Dynegy and by the Prairie Rivers Network show the leaking contaminants include toxic heavy metals such as arsenic, barium, boron, chromium, iron, lead, manganese, molybdenum, nickel, and sulfate, said the network’s Andrew Rehn.

“This toxic waste needs to be cleaned up,” said Rehn, the group’s water resources engineer, who has built up an encyclopedic knowledge of the ash pits and the dangers posed by their proximity to the river. “We want to make sure that Dynegy can’t just walk away from its responsibility. We all have a right to a clean Vermilion River.”

The Middle Fork and its surrounding area are home to 20 threatened or endangered species, 57 types of fish, 46 different mammal species, and 270 different bird species, the environmental group said.

In November 2016, Dynegy, in an attempt to ease fears, completed stream-bank-stabilization work along a 485-foot section of the river and plans to do the same on another 2,000-2,500 feet of riverbank this year, Dynegy’s David Byford told the Champaign-Urbana News Gazette. Once that’s complete, Dynegy will place caps over the ash ponds, in the hopes that they will be less vulnerable to the effects of rain.

But environmental groups say that is not nearly enough. Earthjustice and Prairie Rivers Network argued in a lawsuit pending before the federal appeals court in Washington, D.C. that the EPA should not have left legacy pits out of the new rule.

Dynegy, the environmentalists argue, still must comply with laws such as the Clean Water Act, which prohibits discharges of pollutants into rivers such as the Middle Fork without a proper permit or that violate Illinois health and environmental standards.