Environmental Catastrophe Warns of Coal Ash Hazards in Illinois

CHICAGO — Last week a Duke Energy coal ash pit in North Carolina breached and released up to 27 million gallons of polluted water and over 82,000 tons of ash, resulting in the third largest coal ash spill in U.S. history.

These environmental catastrophes are nothing new, and people in Illinois who live near coal ash pits are paying close attention. That’s why concerned residents are aligning with environmental groups like the Environmental Law & Policy Center, Prairie Rivers Network and Sierra Club to call on the Illinois Pollution Control Board (PCB) to strengthen coal ash rules proposed by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency in order to prevent the same occurrences here.

Joppa Coal Ash Piles Credit: Terri Treacy

Joppa Coal Ash Piles
Credit: Terri Treacy

The Illinois PCB will hold hearings on the proposed rules in Springfield on February 26 and 27 and in Chicago on May 14 and 15.

For more information, see: http://www.ipcb.state.il.us/COOL/External/CaseView.aspx?case=14705 .  To send in comments to the IPCB, see:  http://bit.ly/CoalAshComments

“These spills are tragic reminders of the hazards of coal ash and the burden these power plants leave on communities,” said Phil Marcy, Havana, Ill., a resident who has joined the coalition. “Living next door to a power plant weighs heavily on me, especially being downhill from a high hazard dam holding 90 acres of coal ash.  I want to know for sure that everything has been done to ensure the stability of that site and the safety of my family.”

“We like to believe that events like the one in North Carolina could never happen here, but in truth they absolutely can,” said Andrew Armstrong, a staff attorney with the Environmental Law and Policy Center (ELPC). “We have a chance to prevent a coal ash catastrophe in Illinois now and create rules that protect our residents and the safety of our water supply.”

“This North Carolina spill highlights the need to assess the stability of coal ash pits in our own state. Illinois has nearly 90 aging coal ash pits, many of which were built in places they never should have been – over mine voids and in floodplains of rivers,” said Traci Barkley of Prairie Rivers Network. “We need to get ahead of the curve before disaster strikes in our own state.”

“We hope that the Duke Energy spill and the pleas by local residents throughout the state will be a wake-up call that these rules are needed- and they need to be done right.” said Cindy Skrukrud of the Illinois Chapter of the Sierra Club.  “The people of Illinois and our precious water resources deserve the best protection from the hazards of coal ash.”

Currently, Illinois EPA’s proposed coal rules would allow a coal ash pit to remain open indefinitely, even if it is found to be contaminating groundwater.  Neither do the rules require the removal of coal ash waste pits that have been closed.  The environmental groups will ask the Board to require the removal of coal ash pits to high and dry landfills, allow for the assessment and prevention of damage to rivers and lakes, before it occurs and provide more opportunity for public input. Power companies should also be required to provide financial assurances so that taxpayers aren’t left paying the bill for clean-up.

Coal ash is full of heavy metals, which can cause cancer and brain damage in humans and are harmful to fish and wildlife.  Water contaminated by coal ash increases your chances of cancer to 1 in 50.[1]

At the Duke Energy power plant, a broken storm-water pipe underneath a 27-acre coal ash pit spilled hazardous pollutants into the Dan River.  Testing results released Thursday show that waters downstream had heavy toxic metals such as arsenic, chromium, iron, lead among others.  Arsenic was found to be nearly 35 times higher than the level EPA considers acceptable for drinking water.

Recent investigations into coal ash pits in Illinois have found contaminated groundwater at five Midwest Generation power plant sites, six Dynegy facilities and Prairie Power’s Pearl Station. Pollutants exceeding groundwater quality standards at these sites include antimony, arsenic, boron, chloride, iron, lead, manganese, mercury, nitrate, pH, selenium, sulfate, thallium, zinc and total dissolved solids.

The North Carolina coal ash pit is less than 30 acres in size with a storage volume of 155 million gallons. For comparison, the coal ash pit at Dynegy’s plant on the Ohio River in Joppa, Illinois holds over one billion gallons, and Dynegy’s Baldwin plant on the Kaskaskia River has a five billion gallon pit.  Along the Illinois River at Dynegy Havana Station a “high hazard dam” contains a 90-acre pit.  The retired Dynegy Vermillion power plant hosts a 2,400-acre impoundment, built in the floodplain of the Middle Fork River, our state’s only National Scenic River. If a spill occurred at one of these plants, millions of tons of coal ash could be released— far more than what is currently causing environmental and public health concerns in North Carolina.


[1] U.S. EPA, Human and Ecological Risk Assessment of Coal Combustion Wastes, RIN 2050-AE81 April 2010, page 4-7.


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