Reversing a dirty legacy: New rules aim to toughen regulations on forgotten coal by-products | Politics
SPRINGFIELD – After years of work by environmental activists to push action on the issue, the Illinois Pollution Control Board has released findings and recommendations relating to the regulation of coal ash storage – action advocates are calling “The first of its kind” in the state.
Coal ash, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, is the collection of by-products from coal-fired power plants, which include fly ash, tail ash, boiler slag and various other residues.
The material, also known as coal combustion residue, is usually kept in storage ponds located at sites of coal-fired power plants, called surface ponds.
Ponds typically contain large amounts of hazardous materials, including mercury, cadmium, and arsenic, which can pollute and contaminate surrounding water bodies and drinking water supplies.
While some storage site operators have taken appropriate measures to mitigate pollution in storage ponds, sites have remained largely unregulated until recently, in some cases fully exposed to the elements.
“ Ugly stepchildren ”
Jennifer Cassel, a lawyer at Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law group, called the coal ash regulations “ugly stepchildren” of environmental problems, noting that lawmakers have long failed to grant any relief. adequate attention to the question.
“It was sort of left out of regulation for many years, despite the fact that there was a lot of evidence that it was already harming groundwater, polluting groundwater and creating really precarious situations,” said Cassel.
Cassel said the problem grew in importance after the failure in 2008 of a coal ash retention dike at the Kingston Fossil Plant in Harriman, Tennessee. serious pollution and requiring a long cleaning process.
The incident has drawn national attention to the issue of coal ash storage, sparking a wave of state and federal action to address the issue.
Andrew Rehn, water resources engineer at Prairie Rivers Network, said coal ash disposal sites leave a lasting mark on the environment, even long after a plant has closed.
Rehn said that as Illinois reached a “turning point” in the transition away from coal, cleanup and regulation of coal byproducts was once again at the forefront.
One such example in Illinois is the Vermilion Power Station, a former coal-fired power station owned by Dynegy that closed in 2011. It is located on the middle fork of the Vermilion River, just northwest of Danville.
According to American Rivers, the site still contains more than 3.3 million cubic meters of coal ash produced during the 55 years of operation of the power plant, posing a threat to the only designated wild and scenic river in the Illinois.
Cassel said the location was one of the main concerns for the coal ash cleanup, as pollutants began to seep out of the retention ponds and into the river due to improper storage methods, while natural erosion further complicated matters.
The river “is making its way to these ash leaching ponds, making them more and more precarious almost every day and that’s a pretty incredible amount of erosion,” Cassel said.
The site is now the subject of two pending lawsuits filed by Earthjustice on behalf of the Prairie River Network, one in federal court and one before the Illinois Pollution Control Board. Both accuse Dynegy of violating federal and state environmental regulations due to the continued leaching of coal ash at the site.
But the Vermilion Power Plant wasn’t the only place that violated environmental standards.
A 2018 report co-published by the Environmental Integrity Project, Earthjustice, Prairie Rivers Network, and the Sierra Club found that 22 of Illinois’ 24 coal-fired power plants were reporting contaminated groundwater due to runoff and leaching. coal ash.
Rehn said the data, which was to be collected in accordance with regulations released by the U.S. EPA in 2015, confirmed what each of the groups expected and underscored the need for further action, leading to the adoption of the l ‘Illinois Coal Ash Pollution Prevention Act. of 2019.
The new rules
In line with this 2019 bill, the Pollution Control Board released new rules and findings last month, finalizing the rules that owners and operators of coal-fired power plants must follow.
According to a statement issued by the Illinois EPA, the rules “provide for the protection of public health and the environment.”
“These rules, which have been the subject of much public comment, establish a comprehensive state licensing program to govern all aspects of the CCR surface reservoirs, including the regulation of location, design, construction, operation, closure and post-closure care, as well as the overhaul of communiques, ”the statement read.
The rules require owners or operators of coal ash disposal sites to transport coal ash to landfills or disposal sites that have a protective coating and groundwater monitoring systems. Owners and operators are responsible for the full cost of transporting all materials or upgrading coal ash disposal sites to comply.
Under the Coal Ash Pollution Prevention Act, owners of coal ash surface ponds are required to pay an upfront charge of $ 50,000 for each closed coal ash plant and $ 75,000. $ for those that have not yet been closed.
The bill also charges a fee of $ 25,000 per year for each site that has not completed closure and $ 15,000 for each closed site that has not performed adequate post-closure care. These fees are paid into the state environmental protection and inspection fund.
In addition, all non-municipal coal ash storage sites are responsible for providing financial assurance in the form of bonds, a trust fund, or a letter of credit ensuring that remediation can be achieved. get paid in case of lack of funds or abandons the site.
Under the new rules, a pair of authorization processes are established by the IEPA to guide proper storage and cleaning efforts.
An operating permit would cover active coal ash disposal sites and would require companies to meet their maintenance, dust control and pollution mitigation obligations. A closure building permit would be issued to coal ash sites that choose to shut down or are forced to shut down due to a violation.
‘Big step forward’The rules also require the owners or operators of the site to publicly post all permits and documents related to the projects and allow for public review and comment on the storage or clean-up process.
“These rules really give us some advice on how to answer this question about the process we need to go through to make sure the cleanup is done right and also that the public is involved in that process, which in my opinion is is a key element. to do the cleaning, ”Rehn said.
Cassel agreed, saying the new rules are “a huge step forward” in ensuring that adequate protections are in place for cleaning up and sealing coal ash.
“It was really a priority to make sure we had safeguards in place, so that when so many of these ash ponds close, they do so in a safe and protective way that doesn’t leave communities exposed to these metals. heavy that are leached out. out of coal ash ponds for decades or centuries, ”she said.
While Cassel and Rehn have said the site clean-up is expected to continue next year due to the new regulations, conservationists continue to address issues with coal ash and plan to open a new sub-file of historical outstanding coal ash disposal issues. .
Cassel also said the new rules could serve as an example for other states moving forward.
“We are one of the first states to truly take a holistic approach to how we deal with coal ash ponds,” Cassel said. “I think the transparency and public participation provisions in particular are the ones that could serve as models for other states, and really ensure that the voices of communities are heard on how to best limit pollution.” due to this stuff.