For months now, the Illinois Pollution Control Board has been considering the fate of coal ash stored near four power plants owned by the company NRG. In February, the board completed its second extended public hearing on the issue, with environmental advocates arguing the coal ash should be moved, and the company saying that the ash does not present a risk.
Meanwhile, residents of Chicago's southwestern suburbs are worried about a defunct quarry containing more than 2.5 million cubic yards of coal ash. It is not part of the hearings, but some fear it could become a destination for coal ash removed from impoundments involved in the hearings.
In June, NRG asked state regulators for a permit modification allowing it to take coal ash from other sites to the unlined Lincoln Stone Quarry, which sits near NRG's Joliet power plant about 40 miles from Chicago. Under its existing permit, NRG is allowed to deposit coal ash moved from other Joliet impoundments into the quarry, and closure plans indicate it expects to do so.
Environmental groups and the Will County Land Use department filed comments opposing NRG's request to move more ash into the former limestone quarry, and in December the company withdrew its request.
But advocates, including with the grassroots group CARE (Citizens Against Ruining the Environment), say they are not reassured by the withdrawal. They still fear groundwater contamination and other environmental damage from ash currently stored in the quarry and ash NRG might deposit in the future. The permit covering the quarry allows another 2 million cubic yards to be added.
NRG spokesman David Gaier said, "We operate the quarry under strict permit limits and under the regulatory regime of the Illinois EPA. The Joliet plant, which has been converted to natural gas operation, is no longer generating ash, but the quarry is still fully permitted to accept ash from existing ponds at Joliet and no permit modifications are required."
The Illinois EPA reported last year that test wells near the Lincoln Stone Quarry had a number of compounds consistently exceeding groundwater standards, including dissolved boron, dissolved fluoride, dissolved arsenic and nitrate at more than twice the standards. Tests have also found compounds of concern at eight times or more over standards in certain test wells.
Many people in the area get drinking water from private wells, and it is generally up to well owners to monitor the water quality. But in a low-income area, CARE leaders say, few can afford that, and they worry about the safety of their water. "We think the industry should pay for testing the private wells," said Ellen Rendulich, a CARE leader who lives about a mile from an NRG coal ash impoundment in the suburb of Romeoville and about 10 miles from the quarry.
Gaier said Midwest Generation, from which NRG bought the plants, "conducted a detailed assessment of the quarry's conditions and operations and determined that the Lincoln Stone quarry is safe and presents no environmental issues. It's operated under strict permit limits and the oversight of the Illinois EPA, and no groundwater associated with the quarry affects any sources of drinking water."
Plans filed as required by the federal rule regulating coal ash note that 15,000 cubic yards of coal ash from one of the impoundments in Joliet "will be taken to Lincoln Stone Quarry or other regulated facility for disposal" after the Joliet impoundment is closed by the end of 2018.
The closure plan for the Lincoln Stone Quarry itself calls for leaving coal ash in place, dewatering it and capping it with "a final cover system" including a layer of clay or other nearly-impermeable material.
"While the withdrawal of the permit [to move ash from other impoundments] is certainly good news, there's no indication this problem is going away," said Jenny Cassel, an attorney for Earthjustice who represented CARE residents.
"You need to be moving that ash to dry landfills with all the industry standard leachate collection and monitoring."
Gaier did not respond to questions about why NRG withdrew the application to move more coal ash to Lincoln Stone Quarry or whether the company might revive the request in the future.
He said the company has been focused on the hearings before the pollution control board regarding the impoundments at four coal plants, as well as coal ash that environmental groups say is spread outside of impoundments at those sites. The hearings were triggered by a legal complaint by the Sierra Club and other groups, citing groundwater tests showing contamination and noting that the ash is near rivers and Lake Michigan.
"NRG's environmental experts made the strong case that the constituents in the groundwater were not from Midwest Generation ash ponds, or ash areas, and Midwest Generation has already completed the work, monitoring and controls at each station to ensure there is no risk as required or requested by IEPA," Gaier said. "We remain baffled by the Sierra Club's attempt to litigate an issue when there is no risk to human health or the environment and where the ash ponds have already been resolved to the satisfaction of the agency charged by the state with protecting the environment."
During the recent hearings, NRG presented company and expert witnesses and said that there's no proof coal ash is causing contamination found at the sites. Among other things, an NRG witness testified that large amounts of road salt used in the area could cause high levels of contaminants.
A public comment filed in October on behalf of CARE by Earthjustice and other environmental groups noted numerous and longstanding concerns about the coal ash that has been deposited in Lincoln Stone Quarry since 1962. It said that in 1994, former site owner Commonwealth Edison had reported to the pollution control board that coal ash in the quarry was 20 to 30 feet below the adjacent water table, "meaning that groundwater is perpetually flowing from that higher water table into the Quarry."
The Will County Land Use department's testimony described NRG's groundwater pumping system at the quarry, which creates a "cone of depression" meant to keep groundwater at bay. But department resource recovery and energy director Dean Olson noted that contamination has happened despite the system, and he fears it could be overwhelmed by an influx of new coal ash.
The Earthjustice comment cited 2006 tests showing contamination of residential wells, and said: "Midwest Gen's consultants recognized then, and continue to acknowledge now, that contaminated groundwater is flowing not just north and west into the Des Plaines River but also southeast, toward an elementary school and businesses."
Rendulich said the coal ash "should never have been put in there in the first place."
"The quarry is fractured bedrock, it's very insecure," she said. "We'd like to see them clear out every coal ash pond everywhere, package it up and take it to a hazmat facility."
Many environmental advocates are upset that after a years-long federal process, coal ash was not designated as a hazardous waste. If it had been, storage and disposal requirements would be more stringent.
"This big concern about Lincoln Stone Quarry is not finished," said Rendulich. "They pulled their permit [to move more ash into the quarry], which we were so excited about. But that doesn't mean they won't come back, that doesn't mean the issue is resolved. The issue is still there, the groundwater is still contaminated. Until they change the laws and designate this as hazardous, it's going to continue.