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Activists say Waukegan coal plant will still threaten community after closure

 The coal plant is slated to close this month. Its owner says it has a sound plan to address the coal ash it's produced, but activists and local officials want the ash removed altogether.
Caroline Kubzansky
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The coal plant is slated to close this month. Its owner says it has a sound plan to address the coal ash it's produced, but activists and local officials want the ash removed altogether.

Advocates and officials in Waukegan know from experience what can happen when heavy industry doesn’t behave responsibly.

The city of more than 87,000 is home to five Superfund sites, or areas where the federal government has intervened to clean up improperly managed hazardous waste.

Yet another environmental battle is brewing for the predominantly Latino community about 40 miles north of Chicago. Waukegan Generating Station, a coal plant that has operated for a century on the shores of Lake Michigan, is scheduled to close this month.

When it does, it will leave behind two ponds of coal ash, a byproduct of burning coal that can take the form of fine particles or sludge. Midwest Generation, which owns and operates the plant, says its plan to handle the coal ash won't put residents' health or drinking water at risk, but residents are skeptical as coal ash contains cancer-causing heavy metals and other toxins including mercury, lead and arsenic.

“We've been the victims of Superfund sites before,” Waukegan Mayor Ann Taylor said. “Waukegan isn't going to tolerate this happening to us again, because it's happened so many times.”

On the heels of a poor financial forecast, Midwest Generation announced plans to close the facility as lawmakers hammered out details for a state law to retire coal plants by 2045.

The company’s plan is to remove the ash from the west pond and clean and re-use the pond’s liner to collect stormwater on the site. Ash from the west pond would then be stored in a permitted landfill, but Midwest Generation spokesperson Dave Schrader said the exact location of the landfill will depend on approval of the plan by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. The coal ash will remain in its east pond, which will get a protective covering of plastic, sand and turf. In a statement to WBEZ, Schrader said the plastic will last for 400 years and the turf will last for 100, adding that both “are proven to withstand extreme weather events.”

“Capping and monitoring offers a number of benefits to the local community and environment,” he said in the statement. “The closure process will be quicker and less impactful to the environment than closure by removal.”

According to an announcement from Gov. JB Pritzker’s office, the closed plant will become the site for a 72-megawatt solar facility through a $79 million state grant. It’s not the first discussion of using former industrial sites in Waukegan for green energy production. The city and renewable energy firm BQ Energy are already moving forward with permitting to turn the contaminated Yeoman Creek Landfill into the host for 20,000 solar panels that will go online in 2023.

Schrader said closing the east pond with a cap poses no immediate risk to Waukegan’s drinking water, which comes from Lake Michigan. He also touted the “extensive review process” by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency.

But despite those assurances, activists fear the ponds will fail as climate change continues and pour toxins into their groundwater, which eventually flows into Lake Michigan.

They point to the groundwater contamination that has already occurred on the site. Groundwater monitoring data from seven wells around the coal ponds show elevated levels of boron and sulfate, two chemicals that indicate contamination from coal. The Illinois Pollution Control Board, which hears environmental disputes and sets rules and regulations to protect the state’s natural resources, in 2019 declared Midwest Generation responsible for water contamination in Waukegan and at its other locations in the state.

Christine Nannicelli leads the Sierra Club’s “beyond coal” campaign, which helped bring the case before the Illinois Pollution Control Board. She said Midwest Generation’s plan to remove one set of ash and seal off the other is inadequate.

“The process that is currently moving forward is incomplete and will not address the groundwater contamination that's been happening on the lakefront,” she said.

Walton Kelly, a groundwater geochemist at the University of Illinois, said an immediate threat to Waukegan’s drinking water is unlikely. Given Waukegan’s geologic makeup and gradient, or its slope, the contaminated groundwater will take a while to reach Lake Michigan. Even then, he added, the volume of polluted water versus that of the lake means the toxins will be diluted.

That’s not to say the site is without hazards, notably an unknown volume of uncontained, dispersed ash from a period when it was legal to simply dump industrial waste in the open. In Kelly’s view, that ash is the more dangerous and difficult to address challenge.

“It's not just the ponds that might be causing contamination, but there's also maybe some undocumented disposal that went on at the site,” he said. “And that's really probably a bigger issue than the ponds.”

Older ash is “oftentimes even more contaminated than the newer stuff because their processes weren't as good back then,” he said.

But members of Clean Power Lake County, which has been organizing against the coal plant for more than a decade, don’t want to wait and see if Midwest Generation’s proposal holds up. And they’re not keen to test the strength of the cap or the time it takes contaminated groundwater to reach Lake Michigan.

Dulce Ortiz, one of the organization’s co-chairs, said that while there isn’t an immediate risk to drinking water, she doesn’t want to see a new hazardous waste problem erupt a decade from now if she can prevent it.

“It's not what people may call a catastrophe,” Ortiz said. “What I'm referring to is in five, 10 years. I'm referring to a catastrophe that we're trying to be proactive and not reactive [about].”

Ortiz noted that other lakefront communities don’t have toxic lakefronts like Waukegan’s. In her eyes, that’s because people in those communities were proactive about demanding that industry clean up after itself.

“I don't want us to continue being reactive, especially when we're a community made up of Black and brown community members,” she said.

Ortiz’s co-chair, Eduardo Flores, said activating more community members to fight against the ash ponds would help strengthen the case for removing them.

But he said it’s hard for people to get involved in a long-term advocacy fight when daily life is busy and complicated.

“While you're working two or three jobs and, you know, you barely have time to handle your day to day life, let alone contamination of groundwater, health effects from asthma and stuff,” Flores said.

Local representatives were pushing a bill throughout much of the spring legislative session to mandate that Midwest Generation remove the ash within a year of the measure’s passing, but that bill stalled on the second to last day of the session when 27 representatives sat out the vote to approve it.

With the statehouse proposal on life support, Flores, Ortiz and their colleagues at Clean Power Lake County are exploring other ways to remove the ash.

One possibility is to join forces with other Illinois cities that live with coal ash ponds to get the attention of lawmakers and business interests. Another idea is to influence the Illinois EPA to tighten its implementation process for another, broader coal ash regulation bill that became law in 2019.

Only one thing is out of the question.

“For me, it's not an option to give up,” Ortiz said. “It’s just looking at different ways, different things that we can do to ensure that this company is held accountable.”

Copyright 2022 WGLT. To see more, visit WGLT.

Caroline Kubzansky