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Illinois Adopts Rules On How Power Plants Close Coal Ash Ponds, Requires Public Input

An active coal-ash pond at the Meramec Energy Center in St. Louis County in February 2018. Illinois' new regulations give the public many opportunities to participate when a company wants to close a site like this.
File Photo / Eli Chen
St. Louis Public Radio
Illinois has new regulations on how power plants can close coal ash ponds that contain toxic waste. Missouri officials also are addressing coal ash ponds like this one at the Meramec Energy Center in St. Louis County.

Illinois now has broad regulations for how power companies may close coal ash ponds.

The rules the Illinois Pollution Control Board adopted Thursday determine how to close more than 70 ash ponds across the state that contain toxic waste.

“These ponds have to close, they’re not safe,” said Andrew Rehn, a civil engineer at Prairie Rivers Network, an organization that works on pollution issues in Illinois.

Ninety percent of Illinois coal-fired power plants had unsafe levels of toxic pollutants in their groundwater, according to a 2018 report from the Sierra Club. Missouri has similar problems with coal waste polluting groundwater.

The contamination comes from coal ash ponds that lack sufficient liners that keep the toxic waste from leaching into the ground, Rehn said.

“Most of them are unlined or have liners that don’t count as sufficient enough and therefore are polluting,” he said. “I’m expecting a lot of companies coming forward to start closing ponds.”

Public gets a say

The new rules ensure residents in communities with coal ash ponds have many chances to share their views on the closure plans.

“The rules got us a complete suite of public participation throughout the whole process,” Rehn said. “It has clear opportunities for the public to weigh in and really understand what’s being proposed and happening at facilities in Illinois.”

Companies that wish to close an ash pond have to host at least two public meetings about the proposed project, including information about the merits of different closure strategies. These meetings must happen at least a month before an operator applies to close a pond.

The regulations also require the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency to hold public hearings when there is significant public interest in the approval or denial of a specific permit.

This is critical because local residents often know their communities the best, Rehn said.

“The public in their own review and in their own site specific knowledge might be able to offer things that aren’t going to be seen necessarily by the plant operator or by the Illinois EPA,” he said.

Rules require companies consider multiple removal options

Illinois regulations also require that operators of ash ponds evaluate different plans for how to close their ponds, like removing the waste entirely or installing a vegetative cap. In the past, most companies opted to cap the waste in place, Rehn said.

“Cap in place is the cheapest option, and these rules require the power plant to at least evaluate removal and compare it to cap in place on its merits,” he said.

The rules don’t offer specific options for ash pond owners to consider. Instead they require companies to complete a “closure alternatives analysis,” which examines how well each closure option protects the environment in the short and long term.

Companies also must consider how effective the specific closure plans will be at preventing future pollution, how difficult they’ll be to implement and how much they address the concerns of local residents.

“[The rules] do a really good job in terms of moving Illinois into a much stronger position in terms of protecting groundwater and public health from coal ash impoundments,” said Jeffrey Hammons, an attorney for the Environmental Law and Policy Center in Chicago.

Companies must also monitor the groundwater near active and closed ash ponds and stop pollution when it’s detected, which can be years after a site is closed.

“You may have closed the impoundment, but not done so in a way that ensures that groundwater contamination doesn’t occur or ceases,” Hammons said.

Illinois’ rules also fulfill an important part of the state’s Coal Ash Pollution Prevention Act by normalizing making the state’s coal ash rules as stringent as ones at the federal level, he said.

This designation is important because it gives IEPA the opportunity to ask the federal EPA to certify its own rules for regulating coal ash ponds, which the Pollution Control Board referenced in its adoption of the new rules.

Environmental groups are pleased with the new regulations but acknowledge their real test comes when companies start coming forward with plans to close coal ash ponds.

“These rules are going to be immediately tested and we’ll really see very quickly how they play out,” Rehn said.

Follow Eric on Twitter: @EricDSchmid

Eric Schmid covers business and economic development for St. Louis Public Radio.