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State sues coal plant owner over water contamination

The former Dynegy plant downstate is threatening the pristine Vermilion River, the Illinois attorney general says.

The Vermilion River can be seen to the left of a now-closed coal plant and its coal-ash storage ponds at the center of a state lawsuit.
Provided / Jeff Lucas

Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul is suing the owner of a closed downstate coal plant alleging the site polluted groundwater and is threatening to contaminate the state’s most scenic river with toxic waste.

Raoul is suing Dynegy Midwest Generation, now owned by Texas-based Vistra Corp., for violating multiple state pollution laws by allowing coal ash to leach from containment ponds into groundwater and endanger the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River, the state’s only federally designated National Scenic River.

The civil suit was filed Tuesday in circuit court in Vermilion County more than two years after state environmental officials referred the pollution case. It also seeks a judge’s order to make the company produce an emergency response plan. The plant has been closed for about a decade.

“Dynegy’s actions created a public health risk by contaminating the area’s groundwater and led to the pollution of Illinois’ only nationally recognized scenic river,” Raoul said in a statement.

Vistra, which acquired Dynegy in 2018, said it’s working with the state on a plan. “We have agreed to close all of the impoundments by removal,” the company said in a statement, referring to the containment ponds.

About 3.3 million cubic yards of coal ash, the byproduct of burning coal, was stored in three onsite ponds over the course of the Vermilion coal plant, the state EPA said in 2019 when it referred the case to the attorney general.

Coal ash can contain arsenic, boron, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury and a number of other harmful metals, state officials said.

In addition to the state lawsuit, the company is also being sued by the conservation group Prairie Rivers Network in federal court. That group also filed a complaint with a state pollution board over the Vermillion ponds and asked the state to address clean up of ponds at four other coal power sites, including Waukegan and Will County.

The state is requiring coal plants, which are increasingly shutting down across Illinois, to clean up storage ponds for ash, though groups like Prairie Rivers called for state officials to act with greater urgency.

Prairie Rivers has shown photos and videos of suspected contamination in the Vermilion River for at least several years. In 2018, Illinois EPA “identified numerous seeps of heavily stained water emanating from the embankments adjacent to the Dynegy coal ash ponds and flowing into the river.”

In all, there are estimated to be more than 70 coal ash ponds across the state and many have yet to address cleanup, said Andrew Rehn, water resources engineer for Prairie Rivers.

“It’s going to be pretty busy the next few years as all these ponds close,” Rehn said.

The conservation group Prairie Rivers Network has warned for years that waste from a coal-plant site was leaching into the Vermilion River.
Provided

Brett Chase’s reporting on the environment and public health is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.