Illinois has promised to clean up coal ash in 2019. She's still there.

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

“Thankfully, we are no longer breathing in burned coal,” said Flores, co-chair of Clean Power Lake County (CPLC), an environmental justice organization that serves the predominantly Latino suburb about 40 miles north of Chicago. The explanation is simple: The Waukegan power plant near the shores of Lake Michigan closed in 2022 after decades of pumping Greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and coal ash into the ground.

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

But the explanation for why pollution remains in the ground is more complicated than shutting down a plant.

Coal ash is a cocktail of dangerous pollutants left behind when coal is burned. Across the country, plant operators dumped the heavy metal-laden sludge into holes in the ground, sometimes called ponds or impoundments. Sometimes these ponds are lined, sometimes not. None of the lined ponds in Waukegan 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. Worse still, the coal ash was dumped right near Lake Michigan.

That same year, Flores pushed Illinois lawmakers to pass a landmark coal ash regulation that forced managers of coal ash owners to submit plans to clean up or close their operations.

About three years ago, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) spelled out exactly how operators must submit these proposals. But plans to secure the three coal ash storage pits in Waukegan are on hold. The IEPA has not yet finalized permitting for these sites, so they continue to pose a threat to groundwater.

“As far as implementing these rules, it’s 2024 and we don’t have any approvals yet,” Flores said. “And I don’t think anyone expected that.”

Celeste Flores (left) said the air is now easier to breathe in Waukegan, Illinois. Both she and Dulce Ortiz (right) advocated for the closure of a coal-fired power plant in their suburb. Now they're trying to clean up the coal ash that threatens their drinking water and Lake Michigan.
Juanpablo Ramirez Franco / Grist

Illinois differed from the majority of the country when it finalized its coal ash regulations in 2021. Most states, except for a few such as North Carolina and Michigan, relied on 2015 federal guidelines that aimed to monitor and clean up only some coal ash residues.

For years, federal regulations excluded inactive coal ash ponds and landfills from oversight. An analysis by Earthjustice found that the 2015 rules stood in over 300 of these locations in 48 states. However, Illinois' more protective mandate brought them into the state's regulatory sphere of influence.

Still, advocates say pending approvals are slow.

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

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

The agency said in a statement to Grist and WBEZ: “Due to the complexity of the information required in the applications, this is the case in most cases.” [the] The Illinois EPA has requested additional information or clarification from applicants.” The statement continued that it could take weeks to months to “collect additional information or analyze groundwater modeling data.”

Coal-fired power plants have attempted to make exceptions to their permits, effectively putting the permitting process on hold until the Illinois Pollution Control Board is able to resolve the applications. According to the IEPA, this is the largest delay in Waukegan permits.

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

Waukegan advocates see this long-awaited move as a step toward a permanent phase-out of coal. Although the coal business is in decline, it still plays an outsized role in driving climate change and polluting surrounding communities. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, more than half of the country's carbon dioxide emissions from electricity generation come from burning coal.

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Aerial view of Plant Scherer, a coal-fired power plant in Juliette, Georgia.

The EPA is finally taking action against abandoned coal ash ponds — but it may be too late

Nearly all coal-fired power plant operators in the country are now looking toward the same finish line in 2039. The new rule includes tougher protections for the coal ash pollution those plants will leave behind in the meantime.

“With the 2015 rules, there were a number of ponds and landfills that were subject to regulation,” said Megan Wachspress, an attorney for the Sierra Club. “The circle of ponds, landfills and other landfills just got bigger.”

Inactive coal ash ponds and landfills are now part of the family of coal ash dumps, whose operators say the federal government is asking the federal government to monitor and clean them up if they endanger water resources.

If it were just a coal-fired power plant in Waukegan, Flores said, her organization's fight might be easier to manage. “But there are so many other things.”

There are five Superfund sites scattered in and around the North Shore suburb. These are abandoned properties that are so heavily contaminated with dangerous substances that the federal government has taken over the cleanup. Flores pointed in several directions and said there were Superfund sites immediately north, south and west of the old coal plant.

And that means generations of Waukegan residents have struggled with medical problems and even premature death because of their toxic environment.

For Flores, there is no question about what comes next: the coal ash must be removed from the ground. To achieve this, however, state and federal authorities must pick up the pace.

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

Anna Harden

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