Sierra Club Among 18 Illinois Groups Calling on Rep. John Shimkus to Address Failing Coal Ash Pits

The site where a coal ash impoundment spilled tons of coal ash and wastewater into the Dan River. Credit The Center for Energy, Environment and Sustainability

The site where a coal ash impoundment at Duke Energy’s Dan River plant in North Carolina spilled tons of coal ash and wastewater into the Dan River. Credit The Center for Energy, Environment and Sustainability

Today, on the six-month anniversary of an impoundment failure at Duke Energy’s Dan River plant in North Carolina, 18 environmental organizations and community groups representing thousands of citizens in Illinois sent a letter to U.S. Representative John Shimkus urging the congressman to address failing coal ash pits in the state.

The letter reminded Rep. Shimkus, who serves as Chairman of the Subcommittee on Environment and the Economy Committee on Energy and Commerce, that the North Carolina spill unleashed  50,000 to 82,000 tons of coal ash and other chemicals, in addition to 27 million gallons of water laden with metals/chemicals.  The toxic coal ash contaminated 70 miles of the Dan River, devastating the river system and communities downstream. Although Duke Energy deemed cleanup “complete,” nearly 94 percent of the waste still remains in the river.

Coal ash, which contains arsenic, chromium, lead, mercury, and a range of harmful heavy metals and hazardous pollutants, is a dangerous waste product of burning coal at power plants. When these pollutants enter drinking water, rivers, and streams, they harm human health, aquatic life, and the communities that depend on these water systems.

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Two of the three ash pits at the Dynegy Vermilion facility are now failing, releasing harmful pollutants into the only National Scenic River in Illinois. Credit Prairie Rivers Network

Many of Illinois’ 24 coal-fired power plants were built adjacent to rivers or over groundwater aquifers in order to meet their enormous water needs. As a result, 91 coal ash disposal ponds were built in places that are unsuitable and dangerous for the disposal of toxic waste. Fifty-six ash ponds were built over groundwater recharge areas, 62 over shallow aquifers, and 9 were constructed over wetlands.

Structural controls to protect the Middle Fork Vermilion River from ash pits have failed. Credit Prairie Rivers Network

Structural controls to protect the Middle Fork Vermilion River from ash pits have failed. Credit Prairie Rivers Network

While many of these coal ash pits present threats of slow but inevitable discharge into water systems, several hold the potential for catastrophic failure. For example, the retired Dynegy Vermilion Power Station hosts three waste dumps in the floodplain of Illinois’ only designated National Scenic River, the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River. Two of the pits were built without liners and have begun to contaminate adjacent groundwater. The banks of the impoundment are also vulnerable to flooding and erosion of the river, with the potential to unleash 3 million cubic yards of coal ash downstream.

The Dynegy Vermilion site is described in a recent report on the company’s pollution sites across the state.

The letter, sent by environmental organizations and community groups across Illinois, urges Rep. Shimkus to hold a hearing within the Subcommittee on Environment and the Economy to ensure that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is doing everything possible to effectively address the threat of coal ash to American communities nationwide.

“We believe it is your responsibility to ensure that your constituents and the nation are safe from preventable coal ash disasters,” the groups wrote in the letter, and to hear “from affected communities how these dangerous ponds harm their health, environment and the economic well-being.”

Read a copy of the letter here.

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