The Vermilion power plant seen from the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River.
The Vermilion power plant seen from the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River. Credit: Eco-Justice Collaborative / Creative Commons

After years of organizing and lobbying by advocates, Illinois residents are finally getting a chance to weigh in on plans to keep decades worth of toxic coal ash from polluting the state’s surface and drinking waters.

A new state law requires owners of coal-fired power plants to hold public meetings on their plans for closing coal ash impoundments and mitigating the risk of coal ash contamination. A flurry of sessions was held last week, online and in person.

The debate at meetings for Vistra’s impoundment along the Vermilion River and NRG’s Lincoln Stone Quarry site highlighted just how difficult it will be to deal with massive quantities of ash deposited over decades. More than 80 impoundments across the state hold more than 71 million cubic yards of the toxic material, often steeped in groundwater and right near the bodies of water that coal plants used for cooling.

“Vermilion and Lincoln Stone Quarry are in some ways poster-child sites for the problems that coal ash pits can cause,” said Jenny Cassel, an Earthjustice attorney who has represented residents and environmental groups in coal ash litigation, “with Lincoln Stone Quarry sitting right in a residential area, leaching nasty pollution into groundwater for decades, and Vermilion, looming over Illinois’ only national scenic river, leaking pollution into that river, with the river eroding ever closer to the berms.”

Environmentalists cheered the impact of the law and years of community organizing as Vistra discussed its plans to remove coal ash from ponds located precariously on the banks of the Vermilion, Illinois’ only designated “wild and scenic river.” 

Meanwhile, residents at a meeting regarding Lincoln Stone Quarry, one of Illinois’ most problematic coal ash sites, expressed distrust and skepticism over NRG’s plans to leave the ash in place, covered by heavy-duty artificial turf material and sand.

Removing ash from either site would involve 6 million miles traveled by ash-laden trucks over many years, company officials said. In the quarry’s case, NRG said that so much water would need to be pumped in the course of removing the ash that local wells might go dry.

At the Vermilion site, where the coal plant closed in 2011, the company is proposing to excavate ash from ponds near the river and store it in a dry landfill that will be built on high ground where the power plant now stands. NRG officials said there is no adequate place to build a landfill on the site of the Joliet generating station affiliated with Lincoln Stone Quarry; that plant includes generating units on both sides of the Des Plaines River.

Cassel said the Vermilion plan shows ash can be removed, and NRG should work harder to find a way to remove the ash from the quarry, where it sits soaking in groundwater.

“This idea that they can throw some Astroturf over it and call it a day” is unacceptable, she said. “They need to take a much more serious look at what can be done — how can we make this work.”

Qualms at Lincoln Stone Quarry

Significant groundwater contamination has long been documented at the Lincoln Stone Quarry about 40 miles from Chicago, raising fears for nearby residents who rely on drinking water from private wells. The coal ash sits below the groundwater table, as NRG documents acknowledge. In previous tests, arsenic in groundwater was logged at 23 times safe limits. Boron, molybdenum and lithium were also many times higher than safe limits.

NRG officials at the Dec. 8 meeting acknowledged groundwater contamination but said water is not flowing toward residents now and does not pose a risk to human health. In years past, excavation in an unrelated nearby stone quarry caused groundwater to be essentially sucked in the direction of homes, and contamination of wells was documented. 

In response, owner Midwest Generation (which was not owned by NRG at the time) dug new or deeper wells for 17 homes and installed pumps that direct groundwater away from homes and toward the river. Those pumps would need to keep running constantly after the coal ash repository is closed, officials said at the meeting. They added that groundwater monitoring — required for at least 30 years under the Illinois law — would ensure that contamination is not spreading toward homes, and action would be taken if needed.

But environmental attorneys and residents have long noted that the geology around the quarry is “fractured bedrock.” They cite evidence that even since the pumps’ installation, groundwater has flowed in different directions. Joliet is in a region long known for its limestone quarries, some still active. 

“The quarries pumping pulls the groundwater in different directions,” Cassel said. “If they leave the ash in there we don’t know what direction, what flow, what rate it will take, with all the fractures already underground. It really puts the groundwater at serious risk for many years. Already we know it’s contaminated. We know there are forces pulling it off-site, without all sorts of interactions to keep it onsite which they have with pumping, even then it’s not keeping the water from moving off-site.” 

Multiple residents attending the online-only meeting asked whether NRG would test private wells, noting that at a 2019 community meeting at a local church, the company had made such promises. NRG environmental director Sharene Shealey said that such plans were delayed by the pandemic, and “at this point we don’t have any intent of offering additional sampling,” since no groundwater contamination has been found near homes.

NRG spokesperson Dave Schrader later told the Vxartnews that the company would contact about 10 residents who were previously promised well testing, and test the wells if they still desired and if they are not on the city’s municipal supply.

Jesse Varsho, an engineer and geologist contracted by NRG, said the planned turf cover is used in high-hazard situations like nuclear plants, and has been subjected to “accelerated aging” in tests. “We have a high degree of certainty that the different components of the final cover system will last potentially thousands of years,” he said.

Some of the almost 50 attendees at the virtual meeting also expressed concerns that money would not be available to monitor or deal with contamination that might happen long into the future. NRG officials noted that under Illinois’ law, the company has to provide funds, controlled by the Illinois EPA, for future issues.

Previously NRG had proposed to close the quarry with a “wet cap,” a measure that would have been allowed since the quarry was previously classified as a landfill by the state. The company fought against being designated a coal ash impoundment under the federal 2015 coal ash rule; meanwhile, the Illinois coal ash rule outlawed the wet cap option.

Under pressure from environmental groups and residents, NRG also previously withdrew a plan to store coal ash from other NRG coal plants in the quarry. Now, no more ash is being added to the 2.6 million cubic yards in the quarry since the Joliet plant has been converted to burn natural gas. Another ash pond remains on the opposite side of the river, though it has already been emptied of ash. The company is seeking approval to remove contaminated sand at the bottom of the pit and clean and reuse the heavy-duty liner.

Cassel said NRG needs to find ways to remove the ash from the quarry and store it on-site or nearby, perhaps in multiple landfills on the coal plant site on the other side of the river. Cassel added that Earthjustice doesn’t think the quarry meets the federal rule’s standards for when coal ash in unlined pits can be left in place.

“There’s a rail spur right there, they’d have to actually get permits and build the equipment they need, but cost should not be a consideration,” she said. “Frankly if the law is clear that this ash has to be removed, which we think it is, the energy should be spent on finding ways to mitigate the impacts [of removal] as much as possible, keeping it as close to the site as possible.”

Celebration at Vermilion

At the Vermilion coal plant site, the major concern has not been drinking wells but rather coal ash contaminating the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River. Plant owner Dynegy, which merged with Vistra in 2018, has already invested heavily in rocks and other engineering to shore up hundreds of feet of the steeply eroding riverbanks, including a stretch where orange seepage from the coal ash ponds is prominent.

Environmentalists have long feared that flooding and erosion could cause massive quantities of coal ash to collapse into the river, not to mention ongoing leaching through groundwater that flows into the river.

The company had previously proposed to close the coal ash ponds in place, to the outrage of advocates. But in June it announced the plan to remove ash as part of a legal settlement with Prairie Rivers Network and the Illinois EPA regarding long-standing violations.

“They would NOT have done this if agencies had allowed them to cap the ash and leave it in place, which is what they most likely would have done,” said Pam Richart, co-founder of the Eco-Justice Collaborative, in an email to members in advance of the Dec. 9 hearing, which was held in-person with a virtual option. “The campaign to move the ash was successful in that it built public support and pressure for ash removal — while also continuing to counter Dynegy’s claims that they could safely cap the ash and leave it in place.”

Demolishing the power plant, building the landfill and removing the ash will take 12 years or more, according to company officials. During that time, leaching into the river will be monitored and emergency plans in place to stabilize river banks. Contaminated groundwater will be collected in a trench, treated in a former ash pond on-site, and disposed back into the river — a plan that worries Cassel. 

“​If it ends up being the same pollution going into the river just in a different place, we’re concerned about what that’s accomplishing,” she said.

Prairie Rivers Network water resources engineer Andrew Rehn said he was “excited” about the Vermilion ash removal plan.

“We need more details on everything here, but in broad strokes it really really feels like not just the right direction but the ideal direction,” he said. “We called for many years for building an onsite landfill — we actually had designed documents for an onsite landfill that we sent to the agency ages ago.”

Rehn still had questions about the design and construction of the landfill, including the trench that will catch groundwater for treatment before discharge into the river. Among other things, he worried the pumps might interfere with the flow of groundwater necessary to maintain river levels in dry seasons.

Vistra officials said the design and models for the plan had not yet been done. Under the state law, after seeking public comments on their proposals for closing coal ash sites, companies must seek permits from the Illinois EPA and then hold another round of public comments or hearings.

Meanwhile, though the state rules have been implemented, the Illinois Pollution Control Board has opened a subdocket to consider augmenting the rules. Environmental groups are asking the state to add rules governing “historic ash” that has been scattered at coal plant sites outside of impoundments, including at the Joliet plant and Lincoln Stone Quarry site.

“The lack of monitoring wells closer to the historic coal ash fill areas means that no one has a clear picture of the nature and extent of groundwater contamination being caused by these historic coal ash areas,” says a comment submitted by Prairie Rivers Network and other groups.

Cassel added that while the Vermilion and Lincoln Stone Quarry sites have gotten much attention, many coal ash impoundments in Illinois are lower-profile but highly problematic, and scrutiny is needed as the closure plans move forward.

Kari has written for the Vxartnews since January 2011. She is an author and journalist who worked for the Washington Post's Midwest bureau from 1997 through 2009. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times, Chicago News Cooperative, Chicago Reader and other publications. Based in Chicago, Kari covers Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana as well as environmental justice topics.