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Downstate Vermilion River among most threatened rivers in U.S., report says

An access point on the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River, Illinois's only Wild and National Scenic River. | Sun-Times file photo

Illinois’ only National Wild and Scenic River is among the most endangered in America, according to a report from an environmental group working to pressure lawmakers into taking steps to protect the waterway.

The Middle Fork of the Vermilion River is threatened by three coal ash pits created by the nearby Vermilion Power station, which was closed by Houston-based Dynegy in 2011, according to a report from American Rivers, a national nonprofit conservation group.

Those pits contain 3 million cubic yards of coal ash, a byproduct of using coal to generate energy. The ash contains chemicals “known to cause birth defects, cancer and neurological damage in humans and can harm and kill wildlife, especially fish,” according to the report.

The Vermilion flows through Kickapoo State Park and is home to the bluebreast darter and silvery salamander, which are among the 24 threatened or endangered species in the state that depend on the river, according to the report.

The Vermilion is listed ninth on the list of 10 rivers, which were chosen by environmentalists working with American Rivers because their fate will be decided in the coming year, according to a statement from the group, which has issued the list annually since 1984.

The Vermilion and the other rivers on the list are under “recurring attacks by the Trump administration and its supporters in Congress,” according to the report.

The unlined coal ash pits along the banks of the Vermilion River have allowed pollutants to seep into the waterway, creating pools of orange when the river is at low flow, according to the group. Because of erosion, the structure of the pits is expected to be compromised in the next eight to 18 years — but a flood could cause an immediate catastrophe, according to the report.

The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency is reviewing a proposal to install new bank stabilization measures and cap the coal ash pits from Dynegy, according to the report.

David Byford, a spokesman for Vistra, which just completed its purchase of Dynegy, said the firm plans to continuing working “with state and federal agencies to develop and implement a plan that would offer long-term protection to ground and surface water and other overall benefits.”

However, capping the pits is not sufficient to protect the river or its ecosystem, according to American Rivers.

“Previous attempts at bank reinforcement to stop erosion have not been sustainable and can be found in tatters on the bank,” according to the report. “As climate change brings higher and more frequent peak flood flows, the chance of failure is only increasing.”

Byford said the river bank, which was reinforced in November 2016, “was not compromised during the recent extreme flooding in February 2018, the second highest on record.  During that historic event, flood waters were well below the top of the surface impoundment berms and no coal combustion byproducts were washed into the river.”

The firm plans to propose addition riverbank stabilization projects, Byford said.

American Rivers wants the Illinois EPA to “require Dynegy to permanently halt the ongoing pollution and ensure that the ash pits do not pose a continuing threat to the Middle Fork. Dynegy must either remove the coal ash from the floodplain and store it in a safe and properly-designed disposal facility away from the river, or demonstrate that different measures will be equally as protective.”

State officials should also hold a hearing before acting on Dynegy’s proposal, even though one is not required by state law, according to the group.

The full report from American Rivers on the Vermilion River is available online.