The Illinois Pollution Control Board’s February 5th revisions to coal ash regulations proposed by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) make progress towards rectifying coal’s dirty legacy in Illinois, but more can be done, said several environmental groups.
Coal ash, the waste from burning coal, has contaminated groundwater in Illinois around both active and closed coal plants with arsenic, boron, sulfate, and other chemicals. A 2018 report by Environmental Integrity Project, Earthjustice, Prairie Rivers Network, and Sierra Club found widespread pollution in groundwater around 22 of the state’s 24 coal ash plants.
The Illinois Pollution Control Board must obtain the approval of the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules, a legislative body charged with reviewing state regulations, and finalize these new rules for monitoring and remediating these health hazards no later than March 31, 2021. The proposed rules create a comprehensive framework for the detection and clean up of coal ash contamination of groundwater.
A coalition of environmental groups — Earthjustice, the Environmental Law & Policy Center, Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, Prairie Rivers Network, and Sierra Club — has been involved in the process every step of the way, filing more than 200 pages of technical recommendations for protecting communities from coal’s dirty legacy. Community groups, such as Clean Power Lake County and Metro East Green Alliance, and members of the public across the state provided 120 oral comments at virtual public hearings as well as hundreds of written comments.
The Pollution Control Board incorporated many of the environmental groups’ recommendations, including:
- Public Participation, Transparency, and Environmental Justice. The Board’s changes improve public participation opportunities by extending deadlines for public involvement, requiring translation services as needed, and allowing the public to comment on coal ash pond owners’ requests to be exempted from cleanup requirements. The Board’s changes improve transparency by ensuring permitting documents will be available online by the start of public comment periods. Together, these changes demonstrate a commitment to environmental justice by allowing these communities greater access to the process.
- Environmental Protection. The Board’s changes improve environmental protection by requiring more rigorous analysis of groundwater impacts from proposed permitting decisions, imposing location restrictions on coal ash ponds in floodplains, ordering that costs cannot be a basis for supporting or opposing closure and clean up options, and requiring an analysis of transportation alternatives for coal ash removal (including rail, barge, and low-emission trucks).
- Opening New Dockets on Other Coal Ash Issues: The Board agreed with Environmental Groups that additional protections are needed for historic coal ash disposal (fill) areas, coal ash piles, and coal ash dust and ordered that a new docket be opened to address those issues.
However, the Board did not make several changes necessary to ensure the rules follow the legislature’s mandate in the 2019 Coal Ash Pollution Prevention Act, the legislation that triggered these rules. Therefore, the groups urge the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules to seek additional changes to the rule before its adoption at the end of March, including:
- Require the Illinois EPA to provide written responses to concerns raised during public comment periods so that the Agency’s decisions are clearly documented;
- Require the Illinois EPA hold a public hearing about a coal ash pond in a community when it is requested by residents; and
- Protect public health and communities by mandating that ash from one pond is not simply dumped in another pond, but rather disposed of in a safe, modern landfill.
By incorporating these suggestions, the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules can ensure a rulemaking process that is healthier, safer, and more just.
“We, at Clean Power Lake County are heartened to see the proposed rules give more voice to environmental justice communities like Waukegan and expand opportunities for non-English speaking community members to have a say in what happens to coal ash in our communities. Additionally, the Board’s rules start an important conversation about historic ash dumps on power plant properties, which is one of the many problems with coal ash at the Waukegan Power Plant that continue to plague my community,” said Dulce Ortiz with Clean Power Lake County.
“We applaud the Illinois Pollution Control Board for taking important steps to ensure that Illinois residents have meaningful opportunities to weigh in on safe closure of coal ash ponds in their communities. We encourage the Board to go farther in protecting communities by making sure coal ash is disposed of in safe, modern landfills, rather than moved from one ash pond to another,” said Jennifer Cassel, Staff Attorney with Earthjustice’s Coal Program.
“The Illinois Pollution Control Board’s second notice rules demonstrate the power of meaningful public participation in regulatory decisions. The Board was responsive to the community calling for more opportunities for their voices to be heard. The proposed rules are not perfect, but this is a step forward,” said Andrew Rehn with Prairie Rivers Network.
“These changes open the door for greater community involvement,” said Environmental Law & Policy Center Staff Attorney Kiana Courtney. “Having more time to comment on a larger number of issues in their own language lets the people who have been hurt the most by this pollution get involved in ways previously unavailable to them.”
“Both the Illinois Pollution Control Board and Illinois EPA put in a tremendous amount of work and made great headway on addressing the coal ash pollution problem in the State through the course of this rulemaking. The Board made critical additions enhancing public participation avenues in the Rule. The Sierra Club and our members in Illinois communities impacted by coal ash are anxious to engage in the new docket opened by the Board and secure adequate protections from legacy coal ash pollution, fugitive dust impacts, and other issues that were left unaddressed in these rules,” said Faith E. Bugel, an attorney representing Sierra Club.