May 25, 2024

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Celeste Flores can tell you the good news about living in Waukegan, Illinois: The air is safer to breathe now.

“Fortunately, we’re no longer breathing coal that’s being burned,” said Flores, a co-chairman of Clean Power Lake County, or CPLC, an environmental justice organization that serves the mostly Latino suburb about 40 miles north of Chicago. The explanation behind it is simple: The Waukegan Generating Station near the shores of Lake Michigan closed in 2022 after decades of pumping. greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and coal ash in the soil.

Flores can also tell you the bad news: The toxic coal ash is still there, dangerously close to the groundwater.

But the explanation behind why the pollution remains in the ground is more complicated than closing a plant.

Coal ash is a cocktail of hazardous pollutants left over from coal combustion. Across the country, plant operators dumped that heavy-metal-laden sludge into holes in the ground, sometimes called ponds or impoundments. Sometimes these dams are lined, and sometimes they are not. None of the dams in Waukegan that have been lined meet current state and federal standards.

In 2019, the state confirmed what advocates like Flores had long suspected: that coal ash had leaked into nearby groundwater. Even worse, the coal ash is stored right near Lake Michigan.

That same year, Flores helped push Illinois lawmakers to pass landmark coal ash regulation, which required managers of coal ash owners to submit plans to either clean up or close their operations.

About three years ago, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) finalized exactly how operators had to submit these proposals. But there are plans for securing the three coal ash storage pits in Waukegan. The IEPA has not finalized permits for those sites, so they continue to threaten groundwater.

“As for the implementation of these rules, it’s 2024 and we don’t have permits yet,” Flores said. “And I don’t think anyone expected that.”

two women standing in front of trees.
Celeste Flores, left, said the air is now easier to breathe in Waukegan, Illinois. Both she and Dulce Ortiz, right, worked to shut down a coal-burning plant in their suburb. Now they are trying to remove the coal ash that threatens their drinking water and Lake Michigan.
Juanpablo Ramirez-Franco / Grist

Illinois isolated itself from the majority of the country when it finalized coal ash rules back in 2021. Most states, except for a handful like North Carolina and Michigan, relied on 2015 federal guidelines designed to monitor and clean up only some coal ash residues.

For years, the federal rule excluded inactive coal ash ponds and landfills from oversight. An analysis by Earthjustice found that the 2015 rules existed in more than 300 of these sites in 48 states. However, Illinois’ more protective mandate brought them into the state’s regulatory orbit.

Still, advocates say the upcoming permits are lagging.

“The Illinois EPA has been reviewing these proposed permits for nearly two years,” said Andrew Rehn, the director of climate policy at Prairie Rivers Network in Champaign. “And that’s, like, a long time for these permits to sit and just be under review.”

The Illinois EPA is currently reviewing 44 separate coal ash surface impoundment permit applications for 25 current or former power plants across the state. Earlier this month, two and a half years since the first permit applications were submitted, the agency issued its first two draft permits.

The agency told Grist and WBEZ in a statement that, “due to the complexity of the information required in the applications, in most cases [the] Illinois EPA requested additional information or clarification from the applicants.” The statement went on to say that it could take weeks to months to “collect additional information or to analyze groundwater modeling data.”

Coal-fired power plants have sought to make exceptions to their permits, effectively halting the permit process until the Illinois Pollution Control Board is able to resolve the requests. According to the IEPA, this is the largest backlog with the Waukegan permits.

Meanwhile, new federal regulations issued last week give the nation’s fleet of coal-fired power plants and new natural gas plants an ultimatum: adapt or close. The power plants have eight years to come up with a plan to capture 90 percent of their greenhouse gas emissions or commit to closing by 2039.

Advocates with the Waukegan group see this long-awaited move as a step closer to phasing out coal for good. Although the coal business is in decline, it still plays a major role in driving climate change and polluting surrounding communities. More than half of the country’s carbon dioxide emissions from electricity generation are attributable to the burning of coal, according to the US Energy Information Administration.

Almost every coal-fired power plant operator in the country is now staring at the same finish line in 2039. Included in the new rule are stricter safeguards for the coal ash pollution those plants will leave behind in the meantime.

“With the 2015 rules, there was a circle of dams and landfills that were subject to regulation,” said Megan Wachspress, a staff attorney with the Sierra Club. “That circle of dams and landfills and other landfills just got bigger.”

Inactive coal ash ponds and landfills are now part of the family of coal ash dumps that the federal government requires operators to monitor and clean up when they threaten water sources.

If it were just a coal plant in Waukegan, Flores said, her organization’s struggles might be more manageable. “But there are so many other things.”

There is five Superfund sites scattered in and around the northern suburbs. These are abandoned lots so contaminated with hazardous materials that the federal government has taken over the cleanup. Flores pointed in several directions that there are Superfund sites immediately north, south and west of the old coal plant.

And that means generations of Waukegan residents have had to struggle with medical problems and even premature death due to their toxic environment.

There is no doubt for Flores about what comes next: The coal ash must be removed from the ground. But to do that, state and federal agencies must pick up the pace.

“It’s about making sure we know we’re leaving a community that’s healthier than what we received,” Flores said.

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