April 8, 2014

VICTORY – Illinois DNR will provide greater oversight of coal ash pits

Good news!

In an effort to avoid a coal ash catastrophe like the massive spill in North Carolina, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources has answered our call for greater oversight of coal ash pits. IDNR will now be inspecting every coal ash impoundment for structural integrity. In addition to these changes, IDNR has announced the following policy improvements:

• Increased inspections of all coal ash impoundments: In the wake of recent failures of coal ash impoundments in North Carolina and West Virginia resulting in contamination, IDNR’s Office of Water Resources will visually inspect all coal ash impoundments in Illinois for structural integrity, to protect our natural resources.

• Strengthen internal oversight of permit applications: The IDNR has added a position of General Counsel to the Office of Mines and Minerals to specifically focus on matters related to the Illinois statutes and regulations related to coal and aggregate mining, blasting and explosives, mine safety, and abandoned mined lands reclamation.  All permits will be reviewed against legal standards by the Office of Mines and Minerals General Counsel before submission to the Director of the Office of Mines and Minerals.

• Additional public oversight added to State Mining and Oil and Gas Boards: The IDNR proposes that two additional appointed members be added to the State Mining Board, and that two additional members be added to the State Oil and Gas Board. Each board would add two representatives of the general public who have no financial interest in mining and/or oil or gas operations in the State of Illinois.

• Improved information collection: The IDNR has redesigned and updated Oil and Gas Permit Application which will improve the information exchange process and allow the agency to better collect and review information from applicants.

• Conflict of interest policy update: The IDNR is strengthening its agency-wide policy on conflicts of interest to provide more specific guidance to employees with respect to prohibited acts, and areas of potential or apparent conflict.

April 2, 2014

Citizens Call on Quinn Administration to Reform Coal Mining Regulation

Time To Protect the Prairie State From Big Coal

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
April 2, 2014

SPRINGFIELD, IL— Illinois coalfield community residents joined environmental advocates today in calling on Governor Quinn and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources for a plan to reform the regulation of coal mining to better protect communities from water pollution, farmland loss, and to step up enforcement efforts against mining companies who repeatedly violate environmental laws.

Sue Smith of Stand Up to Coal and Jack Darin of Sierra Club, Illinois Chapter

Sue Smith of Stand Up to Coal and Jack Darin of Sierra Club, Illinois Chapter

“Our livelihoods, our drinking water, and our communities are at risk from coal companies who want to make a quick buck digging up our countryside and then leave unusable land and pollution behind,” said Donald Karns, lifelong resident of Saline County where a proposed Peabody strip mine would destroy the Rocky Branch community. “We need Illinois DNR to do a better job protecting us and our environment.  We’re fighting for our future in downstate Illinois, and we need the State of Illinois to have our back.”

A recent surge in coal mining activity has heightened concern that lax enforcement of coal mining regulations by the State of Illinois is threatening the rural agricultural economy, drinking water sources, and natural heritage. Since 2010, Illinois coal output has risen 42 percent.

“The Illinois Coal Basin is the only U.S. coal-producing area where extraction rates are on the rise,” said Traci Barkley, watershed scientist with Prairie Rivers Network.  “Illinois needs to take a look at the long game and consider all that is damaged and lost when the one-time extraction of coal is rushed through the permitting process, especially for the sake of export.  Our water, our land and our communities are not commodities for industry profit.” {Continue Reading »}

April 1, 2014

Press Release: Permanent Solution to Invasive Species Crisis Needs to Remain Priority for Army Corps, States and Congress

Only viable solution is to physically separate Great Lakes, Mississippi River basins

Chicago – Conservation groups are urging the Obama Administration and U.S. Congress to maintain their focus on a permanent, long-term solution to an invasive species crisis that is putting communities, businesses, and industry at risk. The groups submitted comments yesterday to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in response to the agency’s congressionally mandated study outlining ways to prevent the transfer of invasive organisms between the Great Lakes and Mississippi River basins. Waterways in Chicago, built more than 100 years ago, artificially connect the two water bodies, opening both to destruction from aquatic invasive species like Asian carp.

The Army Corps study—known as the Great Lakes and Mississippi River Interbasin Study—clearly identifies physically separating the two iconic waters as the most effective way to prevent the spread of various invasive fish, parasites, grasses, and other organisms. And in their comments submitted today, conservation advocates are urging public officials to take immediate risk reduction steps and swiftly identify a permanent solution to achieve physical separation.

Groups made the following main points in their comments to the Army Corps:

  1. The Army Corps study clearly identifies physical separation as the most effective, permanent long-term solution. The Army Corps, public officials and other stakeholders need to quickly identify—and start moving forward on—a permanent solution that separates the water bodies. At the same time, short-term actions need to focus on strategic, efficient and effective ways to reduce the risk of invasive species spreading to new waterways. 
  2. The Army Corps study lacks an effective near-term strategy for keeping out unwanted aquatic invaders. It is essential that state, regional and national partners analyze and put in place as quickly as possible an effective near-term strategy to reduce the risk of new invasions, while the nation moves toward the long-term goal of physically separating the two water bodies.
  3. The Army Corps study only tallies the cost of separation and fails to assess the immense benefits to the region. If done right, hydrologic separation will leverage viable, well- planned investments to establish upgraded treatment of wastewater and storm water, as well as potentially new, globally-competitive transportation infrastructure. The result can be a revitalized waterway system that not only closes the highway for aquatic nuisance species, but also creates local and regional jobs, introduces economic efficiencies across the region, and improves water quality, tourism, and recreation.
  4. By coupling the invasive species threat with elaborate water quality and flooding technologies, the Army Corps plan creates an untenable timeline and cost. Water quality and flood management issues are important and are being addressed. Numerous projects are underway and far more are needed to shore up Chicago’s crumbling water infrastructure system, which is tied to the waterways used by invasive species to move between the Great Lakes and Mississippi River system. Addressing these threats in combination will bring needed resources and deeper thinking to both. But the Army Corps’ report brings dubious assumptions and an all-or-nothing mindset with no interim steps or solutions, making actual progress on these vexing issues more difficult.
  5. The Army Corps study, despite its shortcomings, provides a clear direction to establish a national strategy and implementation plan to move quickly toward separating the Great Lakes and Mississippi River basins. However, preventing further movement of invasive species between the basins is a shared responsibility. Separation, as well as interim risk reduction measures, must be the product of a robust partnership of local, state and federal agencies across the region.  

Read the full comments of conservation groups at: http://bit.ly/1koVLGM

Commenting on the Army Corps study, conservation leaders said:

“With the conclusion of the Corps’ study process, regional political leaders must seize on the opportunity to implement immediate risk reduction measures that move us toward permanent separation of the Great Lakes and Mississippi River basins,” said Jared Teutsch, Alliance for the Great Lakes Water Policy Advocate. “Or, we risk losing vital momentum in the effort to rectify, once and for all, the problems created by this un-natural connection.”

“Though Asian carp have captured headlines, there are 10 other species threatening to transfer from the Great Lakes into the Mississippi River basin,” said Robert Hirschfeld water policy specialist, Prairie Rivers Network. “Any real solution must prevent all aquatic nuisance species from moving in both directions. The good news is we can do this while providing communities with cleaner water and healthier, restored rivers. {Continue Reading »}

March 27, 2014

PRESS RELEASE – Amendments to IL Livestock Law Seek to Curb Irresponsible Growth of Factory Farms

Amendments to IL Livestock Law Seek to Curb Irresponsible Growth of Factory Farms

Public health, pollution and rural lifestyle protection drive change to current pro-agribusiness regulations

SPRINGFIELD, IL––MARCH 27, 2014––A coalition of community advocates and environmental groups have proposed a bill in the Illinois legislature — House Bill 5637 — to amend the Illinois Livestock Management Facilities Act (LMFA), a controversial pro-agribusiness law criticized as leaving the floodgates open for irresponsible factory farm development in Illinois since the late 1990s. In response to a citizen’s petition, Illinois has been targeted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as having an inadequate system for regulating factory farm pollution. The state has thousands of confinement operations — over a hundred of which have had environmental violations — that force surrounding neighbors to live with polluted water, nauseating odors and reduced property values.

The Illinois Citizens for Clean Air & Water, Prairie Rivers Network, Socially Responsible Agricultural Project and Illinois Environmental Council are among the coalition of groups pushing for passage of the bill sponsored by Representative Naomi Jakobsson (D) of the 103rd District, Representative Laura Fine (D) of the 17th District and Representative Kelly M. Cassidy (D) of the 14th District.

“Fundamental changes to the Illinois Livestock Law are necessary and long overdue,” says Danielle Diamond, attorney for the Illinois Citizens for Clean Air & Water and executive director of the Socially Responsible Agricultural Project. “The environment and the quality of life and health of hundreds of family farmers and rural residents from across the state have been sacrificed by an unfit law favoring polluting factory farms and agribusiness interests for too long.” {Continue Reading »}

March 13, 2014

TAKE ACTION: Clean Up Coal Ash Dumps on the Middle Fork

Last week a dozen residents and river advocates spoke out at a press conference to bring attention to failing coal ash storage pits which are polluting the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River. Two of the three ash pits at the facility are now failing, releasing harmful pollutants into the only National Scenic River in Illinois.

What’s wrong with coal ash? It contains high levels of harmful heavy metals —arsenic, lead and zinc among them — that can poison wildlife and threaten human health.

“With every rainfall and flood event, these ponds are leaking into adjacent groundwater and threatening a potential breach,” said Traci Barkley, Water Resources Scientist with Prairie Rivers Network. “These ash dumps should have never been built next to the river and over mine voids in the first place. They were not built to withstand the test of time.”

Sign this petition to urge local, state and regional decision makers to support complete closure and cleanup of these ash pits to preserve the health of the Middle Fork River and the communities that depend on it for future generations.

Sign the petition! Protect the Middle Fork from coal ash pollution!

Structural controls to protect the river from ash dumps (ponds) have failed.

Structural controls to protect the river from ash dumps (ponds) have failed.

March 6, 2014

Middle Fork River Advocates call on state officials to address failing toxic ash pits

For Immediate Release
Thursday, March 6, 2014

MIDDLE FORK RIVER ADVOCATES CALL ON STATE OFFICIALS TO ADDRESS FAILING TOXIC ASH PITS

Traci from Prairie Rivers Network speaking about toxic coal ash pits

Traci from Prairie Rivers Network speaking about toxic coal ash pits

OAKWOOD, Ill. – Illinois residents and river advocates spoke out at a press conference today to highlight ongoing deterioration at Dynegy Vermilion’s coal ash storage pits. Two of the three ash ponds at the facility are now failing, releasing harmful pollutants into the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River – the only National Scenic River in Illinois.

“With every rainfall and flood event, these ponds are leaking into adjacent groundwater and threatening a potential breach,” said Traci Barkley, Water Resources Scientist with Prairie Rivers Network. “These ash dumps should have never been built next to the river and over mine voids in the first place. They were not built to withstand the test of time.”

A report recently submitted to the Illinois EPA in support of a closure plan leaving the coal ash in place next to the river has greatly underestimated flood risks, asserts Prairie Rivers Network. The high watermark used in Dynegy’s most recent stability risk analysis was exceeded just two weeks ago, notwithstanding the seasonal high points to come this spring. Erosion of the coal ash embankment opens pathways for additional leaching and potential total release of coal ash pollutants, including arsenic, mercury, lead, and over a dozen other heavy metals, which can cause cancer and brain damage in humans and are harmful to fish and wildlife.

“We know the water quality in the Middle Fork is good right now because of the wide variety of aquatic life in it,” said Kickapoo Landing operator Tod Satterthwaite, whose business puts approximately 9,000-10,000 people on the Middle Fork River in canoes, kayaks and tubes in one year. “The good water quality is one of the attractions that brings paddlers and other visitors to Kickapoo State Park and the Middle Fork Fish and Wildlife Area. If the coal ash toxins would ever get into the Middle Fork it would be the end of recreational boating on it for a long time.”

The Middle Fork of the Vermilion River is the only National Scenic River in Illinois.

The Middle Fork of the Vermilion River is the only National Scenic River in Illinois.

Statements from local stakeholders reflect the ongoing effort of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) to develop rules for the closure and clean-up of dangerous coal ash pits in the state of Illinois. Illinois has over 90 aging coal ash pits with coal ash pollutants found in the groundwater near every one. Closure rules proposed by the state address groundwater threats, but fall silent on surface water quality and issues of stability.

“This is a time when we need our state agencies to be aggressive and proactive,” said Barkley. “Regulators need to ensure that stability risks are informing the site’s closure plan. We cannot afford to wait for disasters like those in North Carolina to inspire efforts for clean-up,” referring to the recent spill of 82,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River at Duke Energy’s North Carolina power plant.

“Dynegy has not been a good neighbor to this river,” said Eileen Borgia of Urbana, Illinois. “Either they live up to their responsibility and clean up this mess now or we’ll be paying with degraded wildlife and increasing cancer rates later. We need Dynegy to be held accountable.”

Sandy Bales and Irene Bullard - Their families have been protecting the Middle Fork for decades.

Sandy Bales and Irene Bullard - Their families have been protecting the Middle Fork for decades.

Other residents have expressed similar concern for the river, including Sandy Bales, a Middle Fork advocate and Champaign-Urbana resident.

“This river has brought so much joy to so many people,” said Bales. “This is a chance for Dynegy to do the right thing so that our grandchildren and future generations can share in these experiences as well. It is easy to take clean water for granted, but in light of recent disasters out east, it’s likely not a question of ‘if’ these ponds will breach, but ‘when’.”

Contact: Traci Barkley, tbarkley@prairierivers.org, 217/621-3013.

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UPDATED on March 7 and March 13, 2014 with press coverage:

News-Gazette “Middle Fork advocates: Dynegy should move coal ash ponds” on March 6, 2014 (PDF)

WAND-TV “People concerned about coal ash pits” on March 6, 2014 (have to scroll at the bottom to find the video)

WICD “Vermilion River pollution concerns” on March 6, 2014 (video)

WCIA (Illinoishomepage.net) “Group warns of pollution in river” on March 6, 2014 (video)

News-Gazette “Environmental Almanac: Ticking time bomb sits next to the Middle Fork” on March 9, 2014 (PDF)