Dynegy, covering its own ash, plans to leave huge dumps across Illinois

This article was originally featured in our Spring 2017 newsletter.

A legacy of waste for Illinois

Dynegy plans to leave a legacy of waste in our state. Dynegy is a Texas-based energy production company that owns 11 coal-fired power plants in Illinois, either directly or through its subsidiaries. These 11 power plants have 42 coal ash impoundments containing over 70 million cubic yards of toxic coal ash! These impoundments are huge: the coal ash impoundment outlined in red in the image below is just one of three at the Vermilion site, containing over 1.5 million cubic yards of ash.

Figure 1. A 40-acre coal ash impoundment at the Vermilion Power Station, one of three at the site. The power plant in background should provide a sense of scale.

The Illinois coal ash rules, which would provide additional guidance on the fate of coal disposal in the state, are still in development. Dynegy bets on Illinois having weak rules that will allow it to leave their dumps for the public to clean up one day.

Coal ash is the solid byproduct left over after coal is burned for electricity. It is much like the ash from a wood-burning fire, except coal ash contains toxic materials like mercury, arsenic, selenium, cadmium, and chromium.

The majority of Dynegy’s coal ash is stored in unlined impoundments. Without a liner, there is no barrier between the coal ash and the groundwater around the impoundment. Water can easily flow through the coal ash and become contaminated. Unlined (and many lined) coal ash impoundments pollute Illinois’ groundwater for their entire lifespan. Toxic materials like mercury or arsenic leach into the groundwater and into rivers. Violation of groundwater standards has been identified at many unlined impoundment sites across the state, Dynegy’s and otherwise.

Dynegy proposes closing these sites via “cap in place,” a procedure where a waterproof layer is placed atop the ash. The company thinks this solves the problem, but it doesn’t.

Putting a cap over an unlined impoundment is like trying to stay dry by bringing an umbrella with you into a pool. Without an underlying liner, the coal ash will continue to pollute groundwater. Dynegy’s plan would leave Illinois’ water sources forever exposed to coal ash contamination.

The first battlegrounds

By federal law, all coal ash impoundments in Illinois will eventually need to be closed, and Dynegy recently disclosed that they are already moving forward with closure plans at thirteen coal ash impoundments across five plant sites in Illinois: Baldwin, Coffeen, Duck Creek, Hennepin and Wood River.

Additionally, we know Dynegy has proposed impoundment closure plans at the shuttered Vermilion Power Station on the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River where seepage from the coal ash is visible on the river banks.

All together, these plans will leave 23 million cubic yards of ash permanently unprotected in Illinois and exposed to groundwater and potentially surface water through groundwater channels. To visualize that number, we’ve illustrated what all that ash would look like piled next to the University of Illinois’ Memorial Stadium. The pile of coal ash would stand over half a mile tall, towering over anything in east-central Illinois!

Figure 2. The 23 million cubic yard pile of coal ash, visualized here as a brown cube, would stand over a half mile tall, with a footprint over twice as large as a football field.

Dynegy isn’t the only company with coal ash waste in Illinois, and it isn’t the only company planning to cap in place instead of removing the ash. However, Dynegy has the most ash in Illinois, both by volume of ash and by total number of sites. This is Dynegy’s problem to solve, not the public’s. And right now their cap in place closure plans will leave groundwater pollution that future generations will have to solve. If we teach our children to clean up after themselves, shouldn’t we create rules that make for-profit companies do the same?

This is why a strong Illinois coal ash rule is so crucial. We need rules that legitimately consider alternatives to cap in place — especially where groundwater already saturates the coal ash. We need rules that give the public a voice during the closure process. We need rules that hold Dynegy accountable for the economic costs of their waste dumps. Anything less is corporate welfare at taxpayers’ expense.

That’s why Prairie Rivers Network and partners have been fighting so hard for stronger coal ash rules in Illinois, and why we continue to do so.