Deadly coal-ash dumps threaten our families

While energy generated from burning coal is becoming a thing of the past, we are left with its dangerous legacy: coal-ash.

Coal-ash, or coal combustion residuals, is the powdery by-product of burning coal in coal-fired power plants, which is harmful to the environment and to human health when inhaled or ingested. What's worse, power plants dispose of excess coal-ash by dumping the waste in landfills or in water basins ("coal ponds"), 70 percent of which are located in disproportionally low-income areas or communities of color.

Communities like Waukegan and Little Village have long borne the burden of careless coal legacies. In 2020, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Chicago's Little Village was smothered in a dangerous cloud of fugitive dust and ash after a smokestack at the old Crawford Coal Plant was imploded without proper protections.

Similarly, Waukegan has been plagued with contaminated groundwater for generations. Despite the closure of coal-fired power plants such as the NRG Waukegan Generating Station, two coal-ash ponds remain along the coast of Lake Michigan and are currently contaminating groundwater and threatening to pollute one of the Midwest's most reliable freshwater sources.

While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has taken steps to crack down on coal-ash contamination, power plants are evading regulation by taking advantage of loopholes that exempt 170 ash ponds and 300 landfills nationwide.

This includes at least 31 coal-ash dump sites in Illinois.

These "legacy ponds" pose a serious threat to our environment and health as they are less likely to have a barrier, like a liner, to protect the surrounding environment from toxins like arsenic.

As a result, energy companies are exploiting legal shortcuts at the expense of the long-term health of Illinoisans, continuing their legacy of profiting off polluting the communities they claim to serve.

Thankfully, progress is coming. EPA has proposed a rule to address coal-ash contamination as part of a settlement reached between the agency and stakeholders.

While an earlier Coal Combustion Residuals (CCR) Rule exempted these "legacy" sites, EPA's recently proposed CCR Rule would impose regulations on "legacy" coal-ash dump sites.

This rule is crucial to public health and environmental preservation and should have the strongest monitoring and regulations possible.

I am committed to working with EPA, the Biden Administration and my congressional colleagues to hold these polluters accountable and protect communities and the environment from threats posed by toxic coal-ash.

• U.S. Sen. Richard J. Durbin is a Democrat from Springfield.

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