The Illinois Pollution Control Board’s finalization of coal ash regulations makes significant strides to rectify coal’s toxic footprint in Illinois. The rules create a comprehensive framework for the detection and clean up of coal ash contamination of groundwater — the first in the state’s history to specifically address this pollution. Not only do the new rules create a new precedent for cleaning up coal ash and restoring the environment, they make necessary improvements to public participation and environmental justice. In finalizing these rules, the Board rejected utility demands to exclude certain ash ponds from the rules and expanded transparency, demonstrating its commitment to a more fair and open process.
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 creation of these rules every step of the way, filing more than 200 pages of technical recommendations for protecting communities from coal ash. 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.
“We’re thrilled to see that the Board took seriously the legislature’s mandate that Illinois’ safeguards be no less protective or comprehensive than federal requirements, and in fact went above and beyond federal requirements. All ash ponds in Illinois must meet essential safeguards, protecting communities such as Waukegan, Peoria, Joliet, and our capital Springfield against continued leaching of dangerous pollutants,” says Jennifer Cassel, Staff Attorney with Earthjustice’s Coal Program.
“These robust coal ash rules ensure that those that have borne the brunt of environmental injustice in Illinois will have a voice in the future cleanup of these sites and the protection of their communities,” says Andrew Rehn, Water Resources Engineer with Prairie Rivers Network. “These rules show the power of our collective voices to make change happen and to hold energy companies responsible for their dirty coal legacy.”
“The rules adopted today mandate opportunities for the public to have their concerns heard and addressed throughout the contamination clean-up process,” says Environmental Law & Policy Center Staff Attorney Kiana Courtney. “It should continue to be the norm in all regulatory processes that frontline communities’ voices are centered and that their input has weight.”
“These new coal ash rules enhance protections for vulnerable communities while allowing the public to be better informed and involved. The new protections charge coal plants with making decision-making on how toxic coal ash will be cleaned up more accessible and understandable. While this is amazing, we have to keep going! We have to continue to take action that will protect at-risk communities,” says Nia Mcfarland-Drye Peoria NAACP Executive Committee Member.
There is still room for improvement. As the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) works to implement these rules, it is imperative that it prioritizes the protection of public health and the environment by ensuring that ash is not left exposed to rising groundwater or flooding, threatening continued leaching of dangerous contaminants for decades. IEPA must also ensure that neither workers nor communities are harmed by airborne ash dust. Finally, IEPA must make sure that residents’ concerns are not only heard, but truly considered to ensure their voices count in determining the best way to keep their communities safe. The Illinois EPA can, and must, take seriously its obligation to protect Illinois communities and its treasured waters from the toxic legacy of coal burning.
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 Pollution Control Board incorporated many of the environmental groups’ recommendations, including:
- Public Participation, Transparency, and Environmental Justice. The Board sets out extensive public participation opportunities by requiring responses to public comments, 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 requires rigorous analysis of groundwater impacts from proposed permitting decisions, imposes location restrictions on coal ash ponds in floodplains, makes clear that costs cannot be a basis for supporting or opposing closure and clean up options, and requires 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 agrees 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.