Nick Dodson, a leader with the Sangamon Valley Group of Sierra Club Illinois, speaks at an event.
Speaker Nick Dodson, a leader with the Sangamon Valley Group of Sierra Club Illinois, is among critics of Springfield’s City, Water, Light and Power's coal ash plans. Credit: Courtesy

The municipal utility serving Springfield, Illinois, needs to stop putting new material into its coal ash ponds as soon as summer, under a U.S. EPA decision announced Jan. 11 among its first-ever enforcements of the federal 2015 coal ash law.

That law demanded all unlined ash ponds initiate closure by April 2021, and City Water, Light and Power (CWLP) was among many utilities nationwide that sought an extension.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency ruled that CWLP’s 1,264-page request, filed in November 2020, was woefully incomplete, and the EPA is moving forward with the process to set a deadline by which the ash ponds must stop receiving new material.

Coal ash is no longer placed in the two adjacent ponds in question, which are separated from Lake Springfield — the city’s drinking water source — by a dike.

But much coal ash remains in the ponds, and now CWLP uses the ponds for wastewater from its coal plant and lime residue from treating the city’s drinking water. With no alternative place for the lime, closing the ponds will cause a “public health crisis” leaving residents without water, CWLP spokesperson Amber Sabin told the Energy News Network. She said the utility will continue to seek an extension through October 2023.

Nick Dodson, a leader with the Sangamon Valley Group of Sierra Club Illinois, said the utility should have been prepared for the finding and worked sooner to find alternatives.

“The best technology you were using was simply putting wet coal ash into a pond that was unlined in the center of a flood zone?” he said. “For them to act so surprised — come on, guys. This was coming for quite some time.”

Closure controversy

The EPA decision does not immediately affect the ongoing debate over whether the utility will leave the ash in place, in contact with groundwater, or move it to a dry, secure location.

A 2020 report required under the federal law showed the nearby groundwater contaminated with arsenic, boron, cobalt, lithium, and other compounds at significantly higher than background levels.

At a December public meeting on coal ash closure plans required under Illinois’s new state coal ash law, residents and environmental advocates pled with CWLP to move the ash out of the pond to a dry area. Sabin said the utility’s planned closure-in-place will cost $8 million to $12 million and “achieves the same groundwater protection standard as closure by removal,” whereas removal would cost $145 million, and spark a rate increase.

“Cost is obviously something that matters to a community — but public health isn’t something that should be quantified,” said Dodson, who testified at the public hearing. “This is something that could affect everyone’s health and resources — this is everyone’s groundwater that we know is being polluted.” 

CWLP’s studies show there is no hydrologic connection between the coal ash-laden groundwater and Lake Springfield. But environmental experts question those models and worry that groundwater can make its way into Lake Springfield or nearby Sugar Creek, particularly during heavy rains that put pressure on the hydrologic system. 

Teresa Haley, president of the Illinois NAACP, was unimpressed with the EPA setting a deadline for closing the ash ponds, and said the real issue is whether they are closed in place.

“It feels like they’re putting a Band-Aid on the problem,” she said. “The old ash is still sitting there in the ponds and it’s not being lined. We know it’s going to leak into the groundwater, there’s no way around it. Shame on them — they should be mandated to put a liner on it or move it out of Springfield.”

Long-awaited federal action 

Many environmental leaders described the EPA’s Jan. 11 announcement as long-awaited evidence the agency plans to enforce the 2015 coal ash law. So far, companies have largely gotten away with ignoring provisions of the law — including that they post documents on publicly available websites — and avoided action through extension requests.  

“We are applauding U.S. EPA for their decision, and we are pleased that CWLP is being held to account,” said Faith Bugel, an attorney representing the Sierra Club. “But it’s fair to say we would rather have seen this happen sooner for ponds that are causing groundwater contamination.”

The EPA announced it is issuing orders on 57 extension requests, with the first batch including the Springfield “incomplete” ruling and the denial of extensions for plants in Ohio, New York, Iowa, and Indiana.

Earthjustice attorney Jenny Cassel said that the EPA’s language in those decisions could set a precedent that impacts whether the CWLP ash pond and others in Illinois are allowed to close in place.

“It’s huge,” Cassel said of the announcement’s ramifications. “EPA has said in no uncertain terms that closure of ash in contact with groundwater is impermissible and is not an option for cleanup; it does not meet the standards for an allowable remedy under the federal rule.”

A flawed request

Among the reasons for its ruling of incomplete, the EPA noted that CWLP failed in its extension request to propose any alternative solutions or locations for disposing of ash or other material placed in the ponds.

CWLP’s request “contains no evaluation of any potential offsite alternative capacity options, as required,” the EPA decision said. CWLP had argued the site is “landlocked” by interstate highways, a residential subdivision and Sugar Creek, hence it has nowhere else to store the ash. But coal ash is often stored off the site of coal plants, and the EPA found that CWLP’s argument “is an insufficient evaluation of possible off-site alternative disposal options.”

The EPA also said CWLP “fails to provide either explanation or justification for the amount of time being requested for the Dallman Ash Pond to continue operation, or substantiation that this is the fastest feasible time to cease receipt of waste.”

CWLP’s request additionally “fails to contain any of the necessary details” regarding issues like the generating rate of the units contributing ash, and the size of the lime pond that would need to be built to stop putting it in the current pond, the EPA said.

A press release quoted CWLP chief utility engineer Doug Brown defending the utility’s work: “We believe we made a clear and concise application pointing to the exact issues as to why we need time to mitigate new disposal options and have no choice but to work within the time constraints of our current ash pond closure plan along with time to complete construction of our new lime lagoon for the water plant.”

The EPA’s decision triggered a public comment period, after which EPA will issue its final decision, and then the company will have 135 days to stop putting material in the ash pond. 

Reliability red herring  

In addition to raising the water treatment issue, CWLP originally argued that it needed an extension on the April 2021 deadline because it had no other place to put ash from its power plant. Without an extension, the company said, there might be an outage that would leave local residents without power and violate reliability promises made to MISO, the regional grid administrator.

The EPA decision notes that CWLP provided no evidence that the ash ponds need to keep receiving ash to ensure power reliability, and noted that MISO has enough extra capacity and new generation coming online to provide adequate local power even if the Springfield coal plant were sidelined. If the coal plant needs to go off-line as the coal ash deadline nears, CWLP should work with MISO to make sure sufficient power is available, the EPA decision says.

Meanwhile the coal plant unit that had long sent wet ash to the pond actually closed down permanently this fall because needed repairs would be too expensive.

The argument about electricity reliability is “completely irrelevant at this point because the only unit [that was] still sluicing wet ash to the ponds has shut down,” Bugel said. 

The coal plant unit still operating — known as Dallman 4 — has a dry ash handling system that collects ash that is reused in cement or related products, or stored in old coal mines. That system malfunctioned last summer, sending a large dust cloud of fly ash into the air.

Haley, of the Illinois NAACP, said the debacle exacerbated her asthma and landed her in the emergency room. She said coal dust or fly ash from the plant a mile and a half away frequently coats her deck furniture, and she is upset the utility doesn’t notify the public when extra ash might be in the air. All this makes her that much less likely to trust the utility’s assurances that the ash ponds are not endangering water supplies.

“I didn’t know whether I was having an asthma attack or a heart attack,“ Haley said of the Aug. 31 dust cloud. “It was devastating, and really unfortunate because the city [utility] plays it down — they don’t think of it as being as serious as they should.”

Kari has written for the Energy News Network since January 2011. She is an author and journalist who worked for the Washington Post's Midwest bureau from 1997 through 2009. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times, Chicago News Cooperative, Chicago Reader and other publications. Based in Chicago, Kari covers Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana as well as environmental justice topics.