Herald-Whig

Energy company wants to wall off Vermilion River's coal ash

The Associated Press
Posted: Sep. 11, 2018 7:00 am Updated: Sep. 11, 2018 4:39 pm

OAKWOOD, Ill. (AP) A power company is looking to wall off Illinois' only national scenic river with rocks instead of removing toxic waste seeping into the water.

State regulators and industry engineers are worried that the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River is eroding its banks so quickly it could unleash a surge of coal ash and water, the Chicago Tribune reported. The river runs through eastern Illinois' Kickapoo State Park, about 120 miles (193 kilometers) south of Chicago.

The Middle Fork is home to three pits of toxic coal ash from the shuttered Vermilion Power Station. The groundwater inside the unlined pits saturates the coal ash and seeps into the Middle Fork, with contaminants staining the riverbank and creating toxic orange pools when the river is at low flow.

Instead of digging out the toxic muck, Vistra Energy, the ash pits' owner, has proposed building a wall of rocks to armor a riverbank section more than six football fields.

Vistra's proposal would require President Donald Trump and Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner's administrations to exempt the Texas-based company from several environmental regulations, including the 1968 National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act that calls for biologically and culturally significant streams to be "free of impoundments, with shorelines or watersheds still largely primitive."

Environmental groups said the company's proposal is extreme and are urging a federal court to order Vistra to remove the waste from the Middle Fork.

"This is a wild and scenic river that is going to naturally change its course and can't be stopped," said Andrew Rehn, water resources engineer for nonprofit Prairie Rivers Network.

State officials said it could take at least another year to review the company's proposal, leading river advocates to push Rauner and his Democratic gubernatorial opponent J.B. Pritzker to promise ahead of November's election to take more aggressive steps in protecting the river.

The coal-fired power plant next to the river was shuttered in 2011 by Texas-based Dynegy, which knew at the time that heavy metals found in coal ash were polluting the river. Vistra completed a $1.7 billion takeover of Dynegy in April.

Vistra declined to comment on whether the company has considered moving the coal ash to a licensed landfill.

"Vistra knows firsthand the special meaning and natural beauty the state has to offer," the company said in a statement. "Rest assured: While Vistra inherited this site, as the new owner Vistra is committed to implementing an effective solution."

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Information from: Chicago Tribune, http://www.chicagotribune.com