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Coal Power Plants Found Responsible For Polluting Groundwater In Four Illinois Communities

Sierra Club
Sierra Club
The Waukegan Generating Station, run by Midwest Generation, LLC. (later bought by NRG Energy).

The Illinois Pollution Control Board determined an energy company is responsible for contaminating groundwater with coal ash in four Illinois communities. 

NRG Energy, which owns Midwest Generation, LLC., will take responsibility for allowing coal ash — a by-product of coal burning — to seep into the groundwater at four of its coal power plant locations — in Waukegan, Joliet, Pekin and Will County. Groundwater at these sites was found to have higher levels of boron, arsenic and sulfates than what the Illinois EPA allows.

The decision — made last week — was in response to a complaint filed in 2012 by several environmental groups, alleging that the company’s coal ash ponds were discharging pollutants into the groundwater and therefore, violating the Illinois EPA’s groundwater standards.

Andrew Rehn is a water resources engineer with the Prairie Rivers Network, one of the complainants. He said the decision sends a message to other companies in the state that might be doing the same thing.

“This wasn’t the resolution of the lawsuit, but it was a resolution of the liability question: Is NRG liable for the pollution they’re causing? And the Board decided that they were,” Rehn said. “It’s our first big example of a company — of liability being assigned to a company for pollution from their coal ash ponds.”

Faith Bugel, attorney for Sierra Club — another group in the complaint — said ensuring accountability is a “moral obligation.” 

“The Board’s decision calls NRG out, and we urge the Board to impose a remedy that holds out-of-state companies accountable for cleaning up the pollution they dump in Illinois,” she said. 

The Board will now decide what steps the company should take to remedy the situation. Advocates say they will collectively push for the removal of coal ash at those sites— which is one of two possible remedy options. Another approach would be to cap the ash ponds, which would involve sealing the ash from above. 

But Rehn said this approach is problematic if there is nothing sealing the pond from below, or if liners are damaged. “You are covering the top, but you can still have regional groundwater flow, that just gets into the ash just from flowing in from the sides and bottom,” he said. 

Removal of the ash requires transporting it to a dry land field designed to hold it without any leaks. 

The state does not have any rules in place for coal ash storage using coal ash ponds, and not all plants  utilize those ponds. Coal ash has also been found in areas outside these sites. 

In response, lawmakers this year passed a measure that would require the Illinois Pollution Control Board to adopt rules for coal ash disposal in coal ash ponds. According to Rehn, the Illinois Pollution Control Board’s decision is good timing and sheds light on issues not currently covered in the legislation. “This lawsuit also demonstrates that we have coal ash outside of those ponds that we also need to be concerned about.” 

The measure is now waiting for Gov. J.B. Pritzker's signature. 

David Knox, spokesperson for NRG Energy in a statement said Midwest Generation will continue to review the decision to determine next steps.

“Midwest Generation, which was acquired by NRG in 2014, has worked cooperatively with the IEPA over many years to continually take steps to protect the environment, including entering into compliance commitment agreements and implementing groundwater management zones,” the statement read.

“The issues raised in this proceeding are complex, the circumstances at each site vary and involve historic activities that occurred under the prior utility ownership of the plants.”

Daisy reported on statehouse issues for our Illinois Issues project. She's a Public Affairs Reporting program graduate from the University of Illinois Springfield. She also graduated from the Illinois Institute of Technology, and has an associates degrees from Truman College. Daisy is from Chicago where she attended Lane Tech High School.
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