Monday, September 10, 2018

Unstable river bank could collapse, putting more than 600 million gallons of toxic coal ash into Wabash tributary

Structures built to stop erosion of the Middle Fork River in Illinois were damaged in a flood in early 2018.
(Photo by Eco-Justice Collaborative)
Despite efforts to shore it up, an unstable riverbank next to a shuttered coal-fired power plant could collapse, unleashing more than 600 million gallons of toxic coal ash into the Middle Fork of the Vermillion River in eastern Illinois, according to a 2017 engineering study. What's more, efforts to contain the coal ash ponds could conflict with laws protecting the river as a National Scenic River. The Vermillion flows into the Wabash River in Indiana a few miles downstream.

Chicago Tribune map
Dynegy Inc., which owned the site four miles northeast of Oakwood before Dynegy was acquired by Vistra Energy, paid for the study, a copy of which was obtained through a Freedom of Information Act by non-profit environmental group Eco-Justice Collaborative. "The company has made a least two attempts to harden the riverbank against further erosion, but the banks remain unstable," Jack Brighton reports for the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting.

The Vermilion Power Station was built in the 1950s by Illinois Power and was later purchased by Dynegy. "Before Dynegy closed the plant in 2011, the two companies deposited more than 3.3 million cubic yards of coal ash into pits next to the river — enough to fill the Empire State Building nearly 2½ times," Michael Hawthorne reports for the Chicago Tribune. Dynegy tried to stabilize the riverbank next to one of the coal ash ponds in 2016, but the effort apparently increased pressure on other sections of the river, further destabilizing those areas. And the structures Dynergy built to stop the erosion have been destroyed by the force of the river, Brighton reports.

"The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency is expecting Vistra/Dynegy to submit in October a proposal for closing its three ash ponds at the Vermilion Power Station. The proposal will likely include options for capping the ponds in place, and for excavating the coal ash and removing the ponds from the banks of the Middle Fork," Brighton reports. "A report by Stantec Engineering, paid for by Dynegy, revealed that given the rate of erosion near the ash ponds, additional riverbank stabilization is required no matter which closure option is approved by the Illinois EPA."

But Vistra/Dynegy's plans for stopping the erosion could clash with regulations protecting the Vermilion as a National Scenic River. The federal law prohibits "any water resources project that would have a direct and adverse effect on the values for which such river was established." And locals complain that the additional 1,900 feet of riverbank reinforcement will be an eyesore, Brighton reports.

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