Lawmakers address concerns of Lake Michigan contamination from Waukegan power plant
An environmental bill that would require the removal of pollutants near the shores of Lake Michigan is advancing in the General Assembly, despite objections from opponents who argue the legislation singles out one company unfairly.
Midwest Generation, a branch of New Jersey-based power company NRG, plans to close its coal-fired power plant in Waukegan in June. The company made the announcement in June 2021, citing financial issues and a "transition from coal" as the reasons for closing.
At the time, legislators in Springfield were debating a clean energy bill and setting a date for the closure of coal plants in Illinois.
The plant has been in operation since the 1920s and was owned by ComEd prior to Midwestern Generation purchasing the site 20 years ago, Dave Schrader, a senior manager for communications at NRG, said in a statement.
The company proposes sealing the older coal ash dumping grounds left throughout the site's history. For its two most recent active coal ash ponds, it plans to remove the site's west pond, which Shrader states, "only contains a small amount of CCR (coal ash) in the sand and limestone layer," and cap-and-seal the east pond, containing an estimated 71,000 cubic yards of coal ash.
Coal ash ponds are pools of toxins left after coal has been burned. Legislation sponsored by Democratic Sen. Adriane Johnson of Buffalo Grove calls for all of the Waukegan ponds to be removed from the site, not just sealed and left standing.
Dulce Ortiz, a longtime Waukegan resident and co-chair of Clean Power Lake County, said "the bill ensures the company does their due diligence and cleans up after themselves."
However, Mark Denzler, president of the Illinois Manufacturers' Association, said the bill is unnecessary because the Coal Ash Pollution Prevention Act passed in 2019 already lays out the course for disposing coal ash waste.
Under the law, Senate Bill 9, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency and the Illinois Pollution Control Board oversee companies' removal of coal ash.
"We passed a process that every company has to utilize, and now the General Assembly has to come back and upset the apple cart for only one company," Denzler said. "Let the process work."
NRG, for its part, contends the new bill is unconstitutional.
Coal ash contains arsenic, cadmium, mercury and other contaminants that are linked to cancer, kidney problems and impaired brain development of children, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In 2019, the Illinois Pollution Control Board found NRG responsible for contaminating the groundwater of four communities in Illinois, including Waukegan.
The decision came after several environmental groups filed a complaint in 2012. While the board found the company liable for causing or allowing coal ash to leak into the water, it held off from determining a remedy.
Community and environmental groups say coal ash, already the source of ongoing groundwater contamination, threatens Lake Michigan if the coal ash ponds are not properly removed.
Midwest Generation did not respond to requests for comment. NRG said in a statement, "Midwest Generation's analysis shows that the coal ash containment sites are not negatively affecting ground water."
Rather, NRG contends that a former tannery near the site is the cause for the contamination.
Johnson said the bill is an initiative of the city of Waukegan and community groups. It also has support of the Lake County Health Department and the Lake County Municipal League.
Johnson said the current law took two years to negotiate, but "just didn't go far enough."
"It did not contemplate the contamination to the groundwater and the potential for leaching into Lake Michigan," she said.
She said the IEPA is involved in developing the amendment to SB 9.
According to Christine Nannicelli, Illinois Sierra Club Senior Campaign Representative, SB 9 also requires companies to "set aside financial assurances to make sure that if (they) go into bankruptcy, the ash pollution would still be addressed."
But while the law was a leap forward in environmental protections, there are still loopholes the company is actively pursuing, Nannicelli said.
NRG is seeking an exemption from the Pollution Control Board from cleaning up older coal ash dumps, instead proposing to cap the affected area, she said.
With the upcoming closure of the plant, state Rep. Rita Mayfield, a Waukegan Democrat, said the legislation gives a stronger guarantee NRG will clean up the site in a community already overburdened by environmental hazards and health problems linked to pollution.
Waukegan contains five Superfund sites, areas where toxic waste was dumped or improperly managed, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
"We want to make sure we are not left with a mess in our hands," Mayfield said. "We cannot afford to have a hazardous environmental site leaching into our drinking water on the shores of Lake Michigan.".
The Illinois Sierra Club advocates for coal ash to be stored in a "high and dry landfill that is properly lined and permitted," Nannicelli said.
Denzler, though, said both the IEPA and the U.S. EPA have deemed cap-and-seal to be a safe and secure way to manage waste. The EPA, though, does not allow for closing coal ash ponds when it's in contact with groundwater, as in the case of the coal ash ponds in Waukegan.
SB3073, passed the Senate by a 35-15 vote with one Democrat joining Republicans in opposition. In addition to Johnson, other sponsors from the Northwest suburbs include Democratic state Sens. Ann Gillespie of Arlington Heights, Melinda Bush of Grayslake, Julie A. Morrison of Deerfield, Suzy Glowiak Hilton of Western Springs and Laura Murphy of Des Plaines. Among the Lake County Republicans, state Sen. Craig Wilcox of McHenry voted no and Minority Leader Dan McConchie of Hawthorn Woods did not vote. Wilcox was not available for comment.
The bill has now moved to the House, where Mayfield is its chief sponsor.