Study identifies Waukegan coal plant as potential flooding, contamination risk
Community concerns of Lake Michigan contamination from a Waukegan power plant's recently shuttered coal-fired units heightened last week after an environmental study identified the facility as a potential flood risk, citing rising lake levels due to climate change.
The report, released by Chicago's Environmental Law and Policy Center, comes months after state legislation that would have required the removal of pollutants near the lake's shorelines stalled in the House, but environmental advocates say they are not giving up on complete removal.
"The study shows that there are neighborhoods, facilities and communities that are going to be drastically affected by water encroaching onto industrial sites," said Kiana Courtney, center staff attorney and co-author of the report. "It's important that we are prepared, that there are nature-based solutions to manage when this happens, and that any potential contaminants won't get carried into communities."
The study's scope includes four states, extending north to Two Rivers in Wisconsin, down to Gary, Indiana, and around to South Haven in Michigan. The report covers six locations in Illinois, including multiple Waukegan sites and Zion's retired nuclear plant.
The Environmental Law and Policy Center examined potential flooding based on four water levels, from 584 feet to 589 feet. Over the last four decades or so, the highest lake level came in 2020 when it reached 582 feet.
The lake hasn't reached 584 feet for about 1,500 years, but predictions of Great Lakes levels come with uncertainty, said Robin Mattheus, a coastal geologist with the Illinois State Geological Survey.
Mattheus said that while changes in lake levels are natural, some scientists worry that those changes will become more dramatic, more often. For instance, the lake dropped to just under 576 feet in 2013. Rising to such high levels in 2020, in a matter of just seven years, was a unique event, he said.
"It's hard to say what might be here 10 years from now. We expect more of that oscillation, but we're afraid maybe that with climate change, that oscillation might become more erratic," he said.
Courtney added that the center's report is a passive flood model, making it a baseline estimate for what flooding could look like, as it doesn't consider factors such as wave action and shoreline erosion.
"It's important that policymakers really dig into what can happen to these industrial areas, to these communities, as the waters rise, as waves continue to crash into the shoreline and the shoreline erodes," she said.
Midwest Generation, a branch of New Jersey-based power company NRG, closed its Waukegan plant's coal-fired units in June, but two coal ash ponds -- pools of toxins that form after burning coal -- remain. The company announced the closure in June 2021, citing financial issues and a "transition from coal."
The company intends to seal coal ash dumping grounds that have been left throughout the site's history. For its two most recent coal ash ponds, NRG plans to remove the site's west pond and cap-and-seal the east pond, which contains an estimated 71,000 cubic yards of coal ash.
Coal ash contains contaminants like arsenic, cadmium and mercury, which without proper management can pollute waterways, groundwater, drinking water and the air, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Eduardo Flores, a native of Waukegan and co-chair of Clean Power Lake County, said the east pond's presence so close to the city's source of drinking water is alarming.
"It's a huge environmental disaster waiting to happen. The question isn't if (the cap-and-seal) will fail. It's when and how soon," Flores said.
Despite community support for complete removal, NRG maintains that capping and monitoring the site will be quicker and affect the environment less.
"Science shows that the coal ash at the Waukegan site is having no impact on Lake Michigan or the beach, making removal unnecessary," Dave Schrader, a senior manager for communications at NRG, said in a statement. "The recommended plans are based on analysis and modeling that makes protecting the community and the environment a priority."
Legislation that would have required the removal of any coal ash pollutants on Lake Michigan's shorelines failed in the House this year. It had garnered support from several environmental groups, including the Environmental Law and Policy Center as well as Clean Power Lake County.
Bill co-sponsor Rep. Rita Mayfield, a Waukegan Democrat, said she still has hope for the bill's revival during the General Assembly's veto session this fall.
"I'm still reaching out to members who were undecided, who voted no and who weren't sure how to vote," Mayfield said. "I think having the data from this particular report and sending that out there to them so that they can understand the urgency in which we need to act ... will help to sway some of them."
Mayfield said if the bill doesn't pull through in the fall, she'll reintroduce similar legislation next year.
"It absolutely has to happen. It is a priority for me, and it should be a priority for everyone in the state that depends on drinking water from Lake Michigan," Mayfield said. "We're at a critical stage where we can make a difference before we have a national disaster."
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, including the Environmental Law and Policy Center, Sierra Club, Prairie Rivers Network and Citizens Against Ruining the Environment.
While the board has found the company liable for causing or allowing coal ash to leak into the water, it is currently in the remedy phase of its decision. The case's next hearing is expected to take place near the end of September.
The coal plant is part of a cluster of industrial facilities identified in Environmental Law and Policy Center's report as a potential area of risk. Though NRG's plant is not a Superfund site, Waukegan is the site of five total Superfund sites, which are contaminated or hazardous sites managed by the U.S. EPA.
The EPA forces responsible parties to clean up sites "whenever possible," but taxpayers pay the bulk of oversight and cleanup costs at Superfund sites, national investigative reporting initiative News21 reported.
"NRG is not the only site in Waukegan. This report is just another reminder of how Waukegan has been a sacrifice zone and is on the front lines of not only industrial pollution but also climate change," Courtney said. "With flooding presenting more risk to this community, it's even more important to make sure coal ash is removed from this site."