Environmental Groups to Sue to Protect National Scenic River from Leaking Toxic Waste

Dynegy’s coal ash pits polluting Middle Fork of the Vermilion River


Jenny Cassel, Earthjustice, (215) 717-4525


Andrew Rehn, Prairie Rivers Network (217) 344-2371, ext. 208

Conservation group Prairie Rivers Network today filed official notice that it intends to sue the electric generating company Dynegy because toxic coal ash waste stockpiled at the company’s Vermilion Power Plant in Oakwood, Illinois is leaking pollution into the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River, Illinois’ only National Scenic River and a popular site for kayaking, canoeing and tubing.

The toxic chemicals leaking from the coal ash pits have stained the riverbank a shimmery orange, rust, and purple color and turned the river water orange. 

Courtesy of The Prairie Rivers Network
Middle Fork River in September 2017. Top photo: Adjacent to Vermilion Power Station Ash Ponds. Bottom photo: Upstream of the Vermilion Power Station.

“These illegal discharges could not be more obvious,” said Earthjustice attorney Jenny Cassel, who represents Prairie Rivers Network. “Dynegy is not above the law and should not be allowed to get away with dumping toxic heavy metals into one of the most ecologically vibrant rivers in our state.”

The plant operated from the mid-1950s and was closed in 2011. For decades, the plant’s operators dumped the waste left over from burning coal into unlined pits where the toxic ash can seep into water and soil and blow into the air. The pits contain millions of tons of ash and loom over a half-mile stretch of the Middle Fork’s banks. The company’s own testing and reports show that coal ash waste is leaking into groundwater and into the river.

Testing by Dynegy and by the Prairie Rivers Network show the leaking contaminants include toxic heavy metals such as arsenic, barium, boron, chromium, iron, lead, manganese, molybdenum, nickel, and sulfate. Several of these contaminants were found at concentrations in excess of federal and Illinois standards for protection of human health and the environment. Exposure to these toxics raises the risk for cancer, heart disease, and stroke, and can inflict lasting brain damage on children.

“This toxic waste needs to be cleaned up,” said Andrew Rehn, Water Resources Engineer at Prairie Rivers Network. “We want to make sure that Dynegy can’t just walk away from its responsibility. We all have a right to a clean Vermilion River.”

In 1989, about 17 miles of the Middle Fork were designated as Illinois’ only Scenic River under the federal National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.  The Middle Fork and its surrounding area are home to twenty threatened or endangered species, fifty-seven types of fish, forty-six different mammal species, and two hundred seventy different bird species.  The river is home to state-endangered Blue Breast Darter and several species of rare, threatened, and endangered mussels. The American bald eagle, river otter, and wild turkey have all returned to the area, sharing their habitat with mink, turtles, Great Blue Heron and other species.

The coal ash pits at the Vermilion Power Plant are “legacy” ash pits, excluded from the protections of EPA’s federal coal ash rule because the power plant retired before the rule went into effect in 2015. Environmental groups, including Earthjustice and Prairie Rivers Network, have argued in a lawsuit pending before the federal appeals court in D.C. that EPA should not have left legacy pits out of the rule.  Even absent strong federal protections for legacy coal ash sites, however, Dynegy still must comply with environmental laws such as the Clean Water Act, which prohibits discharges of pollutants into rivers such as the Middle Fork without a proper permit or that violate Illinois health and environmental standards.

Prairie Rivers Network is Illinois’ advocate for clean water and healthy rivers and is the Illinois affiliate of the National Wildlife Federation. Prairie Rivers Network advocates for cultural values, policies and practices that sustain the ecological health and biological diversity of Illinois’ water resources and aquatic ecosystems. It is a member-supported, nonprofit organization that champions clean, healthy rivers and lakes and safe drinking water to benefit the people and wildlife of Illinois. Prairie Rivers Network explains the threats Dynegy’s coal ash pits pose to the Middle Fork on its website. 

Read the 60-day notice of intent to sue letter.

View press kit of photos and videos from Prairie Rivers Network.

Vermilion Coal Ash
Toxic coal ash waste, the red material in the river bank, from Dynegy’s Vermilion Power Plant in Oakwood, Illinois, can be seen leaking into the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River. (Courtesy of The Prairie Rivers Network)

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