Coal ash along the shores of the Great Lakes threatens water quality as residents push for change

Just four miles from the public beach in Waukegan, Illinois is the Waukegan Generating Station, a former coal-fired power plant. According to Dulce Ortiz, a Waukegan resident, coal ash, a by-product of a coal-fired power plant, remains a “time bomb” that threatens not only her area’s water supply, but the entirety of Lake Michigan.

Ortiz, founder of Clean Power Lake County, an environmental justice nonprofit, has been working for a decade to clean up waste coal ash at the Waukegan power plant. In June 2022, they completed their first task: shutting down the station’s last two coal plants.

But coal ash still fills groundwater and ponds at the site, where residents are concerned that toxic metals such as arsenic, lead and mercury, linked to certain cancers and neurological problems, may be seeping into groundwater. According to a 2019 Illinois Pollution Control Board ruling, boron and sulfate derived from coal ash were found in Waukegan groundwater in excess of Board regulations. Due to pollution, Ortiz does not allow his children to swim in nearby Lake Michigan.

The Waukegan Generating Station sites are just one example of 111 coal ash waste sites within two miles of the shores of the Great Lakes, many of which threaten the health of the environment and nearby communities. Although coal ash dumps are scattered throughout the country, those closest to the shores of the Great Lakes are of particular concern, as more than 30 million people depend on the lakes for clean drinking water. Earthjustice, an environmental advocacy group, has estimated that many of the coal ash sites violate the federal rule governing coal ash pollution, but the Environmental Protection Agency has done little to enforce the rule.

Earthjustice estimates that plants near the Great Lakes have more than 57 million cubic yards of toxic coal ash, enough to fill more than 17,000 Olympic-size swimming pools.

“We had a lot of businesses that were polluting our land, making a profit and just leaving us with huge messes that we, as taxpayers, had to clean up,” Ortiz said. “They are not held accountable.”

Violation of federal regulations

The EPA’s 2015 Coal Residue Regulation requires coal-fired power plants to safely dispose of coal ash and clean up any areas of coal ash that threaten groundwater quality. However, an Earthjustice report last November found that there was “widespread non-compliance” with the rule, as more than 90 percent of regulated coal-fired power plants continue to pollute groundwater.

Only a few of the sumps bordering the Great Lakes are regulated by the CCR rule – any sites that haven’t received new coal ash since 2015 are exempt from it. Earthjustice estimates that most regulated sites violate the CCR rule anyway due to inadequate treatment practices and failure to restore groundwater quality.

Earthjustice estimates that 56 coal ash waste sites within two miles of the Great Lakes are wholly unregulated by the CCR rule, though that number is likely low, said Lisa Evans, an attorney for Earthjustice, because the number only includes locations the EPA has been able to identify.

” [CCR] The rule leaves as much waste unregulated as it regulates,” Evans said. “A large amount of ash that is not regulated still poses a greater or even greater threat than regulated waste.”

In August, Earthjustice sued the Environmental Protection Agency over unregulated coal ash, which it estimates is found in at least 287 landfills in 38 states, enough to fill freight train cars that can double wrap around the earth. On Friday, as part of a proposed settlement with Earthjustice and the six other environmental groups it represented, including Clean Power Lake County, the EPA posted a notice in the Federal Register saying it will decide by May 5, 2023 whether to close the huge loophole. and if it does, make all changes to the coal ash rules by May 6, 2024.
The action comes after Inside Climate News, WMFE in Orlando and NPR brought national attention to the EPA’s coal ash loophole in late 2021 and early 2022.

“You can’t restore groundwater quality by removing half of the coal ash from a site, leaving the other half out of control,” said Abel Russ, senior lawyer at the Environmental Integrity Project, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. “However, this is exactly what we see on many sites in the current structure. An unregulated landfill rule will go a long way in solving the problem and protecting our aquifers, streams and local communities.”

The Environmental Protection Agency did not immediately provide a comment.

Partial cleaning

The Waukegan plant has three sites for waste coal ash, Ortiz said: two ponds and another deposit. In December 2021, the plant operator Midwest Generation unveiled plans to clean up one of the waste landfills by extracting coal ash and moving it to an approved landfill. The other pond will be filled with earth, covered with plastic and left in place, they said.

There are no plans to clean up a third coal ash waste site at the Waukegan plant as it has not received new coal ash since 2015 and is therefore not subject to the CCR rule. According to Midwest Generation spokesman Dave Schrader, this coal ash deposit was left over from a previous owner.

Schroeder said in an email that Midwest Generation had proposed fixing the site, but “regulators will ultimately decide which areas should be fixed and approve the means by which this can be done.”

“Despite a months-long disinformation campaign run by a small but vocal group that does not trust the regulatory process, the MWG plan has been scientifically and historically proven to be a safe, reliable and effective way to protect Waukegan’s groundwater for future generations. “, Schroeder said in an email.

The Midwest Generation held two public meetings on the issue, but Ortiz is frustrated by the lack of action. “They don’t listen to the community or what we want,” Ortiz said. Clean Power Lake County and Waukegan Mayor Ann Taylor will try to pass additional legislation this year that would require Midwest Generation to be responsible for a complete cleanup of the area.

“My line in the sand is drawn like this, [Midwest Generation] gotta do the cleaning,” Taylor told Inside Climate News. “I’m not negotiating about it.”

The Threat to the Third Coast

A delay in cleaning up 111 landfills could pollute groundwater and the Great Lakes, Evans said. Since groundwater eventually flows into lakes, controlling the leaching of chemicals into groundwater will also help protect lakes.

Ortiz says she’s worried about the containment strategy announced by the Midwest Generation due to high winds and erosion caused by Lake Michigan waves. In December, Earthjustice and other environmental groups based in the Great Lakes region sent a letter to the EPA stating that leaving coal ash in place indefinitely “would leave the Great Lakes region at constant risk of irreparable harm” that would only become “more likely “. with lake level rise and coastline erosion due to the climate crisis.”

A 2022 report by the Center for Environmental Law and Policy found 12 hotspots where high lake levels and severe storms could affect industrial sites, polluted sites and communities along Lake Michigan, including a cluster of industrial sites in Waukegan.

Coal ash tanks are also a matter of environmental justice: of the 16 regulated plants located along the shores of the Great Lakes, 11 are located in communities where most residents are low-income, people of color, or both. Seventy percent of factories nationwide where coal ash either pollutes the environment or is near groundwater are also located in disproportionately low-income areas or communities of color.

Waukegan, for example, is 53 percent Hispanic and 18 percent black. Families in the city are in survival mode, Ortiz said. “Their goal is to feed the family, educate and work,” she said. “Unfortunately, there isn’t much time left to make sure our communities are thriving or that no one is polluting the air or water.”

There are five Superfund sites within City of Waukegan, including an asbestos landfill, a contaminated manufacturing plant, and an unlined landfill.

“We don’t want this coal plant to be the sixth,” Ortiz said.

Staff Writer James Bruggers contributed to this report.

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