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)