Victory in Illinois: Coal plant found guilty of polluting groundwater with coal ash

“Today is a huge victory for Waukegan residents who have fought for years to see corporations like NRG Energy held accountable for the toxic waste that has been illegally dumped on our Lake Michigan lakefront.”

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Image credit: Clean Power Lake County

The Illinois Pollution Control Board’s interim order has ruled that NRG Energy’s Waukegan Generating Station is responsible for polluting groundwater with coal ash.

The Waukegan plant, which is located on Lake Michigan’s shoreline, is one of four Illinois plants accused by the Sierra Club and other environmental groups of breaking state pollution laws and regulations.

Groundwater monitoring at the Waukegan plant found high levels of boron, sulfate, and other contaminants. The board found that it was “more probably than not” that the contamination was caused by the plant’s operations.

The pollutants found pose a risk to human health and aquatic ecosystems. It is possible that the contaminated groundwater could spread to nearby bodies of water, such as Lake Michigan.

NRG has been adamant that their coal ash ponds are in compliance with their EPA permits and the each is lined with a high-density polyethylene liner to prevent groundwater contamination. However, monitoring results showed the contamination to groundwater continued to be a problem and that the company was aware of the problem but took no further action “to stop or even identify the specific source: no further investigation of historic areas is taking place; no additional monitoring wells are installed; and, no further inspection of ash ponds or land around the ash ponds in the locations that show persistent exceedances is taking place,” said Illinois Pollution Control Board Chairman Katie Papadimitriu.

Although the board was not able to determine the appropriate relief, environmental grounds are seeking “the most stringent remedy possible, including a demand for removal of coal ash dumps at the coal power plants.”

“Today is a huge victory for Waukegan residents who have fought for years to see corporations like NRG Energy held accountable for the toxic waste that has been illegally dumped on our Lake Michigan lakefront,” said Dulce Ortiz, co-chair of Clean Power Lake County.

Last year the Environmental Integrity Project, Earthjustice, Prairie Rivers Network and Sierra Club released a report detailing the widespread pollution of groundwater surrounding 90 percent of reporting Illinois coal ash dumpsites.

The report drew on numbers from industry data made publicly available for the first time due to a requirement in federal coal ash regulations. Results showed that “22 of Illinois 24 coal ash dumpsites with available data have released toxic pollutants including arsenic, cobalt, and lithium, into groundwater.”

Coal plant pollution, in many forms, can have significant impacts on human health. Emissions from coal plants include carbon dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and mercury, which have been linked to irritation of the throat and lungs, leading to difficulty breathing, increased asthma symptoms, more respiratory illnesses, and cardiovascular disease.

Just one gram of mercury is enough to contaminate a 20 acre lake and the waukegan power plant emits almost 100 lbs. of mercury each year, according to the Sierra Club.

Coal ash itself contains a ton of toxic pollutants arsenic, boron, cadmium, chromium, lead, radium, selenium and more. These chemicals have been linked to cancer, heart disease, reproductive failure and stroke, and brain damage on children.

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