Coal ash continues to pollute Vermilion River


Tribune News Service

Crows flock along the Vermillion River in Danville, Illinois, January 24, 2013.

By Ashni Gandhi, Staff Writer

With 57 types of fish and 190 types of birds, the Vermilion River is the only state-designated wild and scenic river in Illinois. However, of these various creatures dominating the landscape, 24 species are listed as state-threatened or endangered.

Coal ash and its effect on the river is the primary perpetrator of this environmental decline.

On Oct. 20, the Champaign County Sustainability Network (CCNet), hosted a presentation discussing the coal ash surrounding the Vermilion River. This presentation drew a small crowd of locals interested in the river’s well-being.

The Network’s event featured Pam and Lan Richart, co-directors of the Eco-Justice Collaborative, a local nonprofit. This duo recently relocated to Champaign, focusing their work on natural resource conservation and management.

Coal ash is made up of the toxic metals and residue leftover after burning coal. Lan said that 3.3 million cubic yards of toxic coal ash can be found in the river. This number is enough to fill over 1500 football fields one foot deep in coal ash.

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    The Dynegy Vermilion Power Plant, which sits near the river, ceased operating in December of 2011. Despite the closing, the coal ash waste remains. Leeching into the river, the coal ash has contaminated the groundwater. Lan said that ponds contaminated with coal ash will always fail.

    Dynegy was issued a violation notice 4 years ago by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) prior to closing. The issue has not been fully remedied.

    Recognizing the power plant’s inaction, Lan sees the necessity in addressing coal ash now.

    “Although this has been around for decades, this is the time where Dynegy is going before the EPA for foreclosure,” Lan said. “Once that is done, we have to live with the situation.”

    This foreclosure would absolve Dynegy of their responsibility to clean up the river and its surroundings from waste. The burden of paying for the cleanup would then be placed upon Vermilion County.

    Alexis Miller, a junior in FAA, knows little about issues plaguing the Vermilion River. Though as an advocate for environmental concerns in the area, she wants to know more.

    “I feel I should know more being an Illinois resident,” Miller said.

    Numerous state and local efforts have attempted to address these issues.

    Kathleen Robbins, executive director of McKinley Foundation, has lived in Vermilion County for eight years. Within that time, she noticed city of Danville clearing out warehouses to make the river accessible to locals.

    Twice a year, Robbins kayaks down the middle of the Vermilion River’s fork. She is pleased with the progress made, specifically cleaner water and increased animal populations.

    “The wildlife has come back; they released river otters 20 years ago now,” Robbins said. “Last I heard, they were thriving.”

    “The river draws around one million people a year and is a major recreational destination,” Pam said. Besides using the river, she said locals enjoy horseback riding, camping, picnicking and kayaking around the river. It is surrounded by 8,400 acres of open space.

    “One of the things I like about the river is that there are high bluffs, crystal-clear water, riffles and rapids,” Pam said. “It happens to be a regional asset and the Vermilion County and Danville is looking to make it an economic asset for tourism and development.”

    Despite the improvements locals have seen in the river’s accessibility, Robbins voices concern over the future of the floodplain and the river system.

    “Unless it is relocated, it is just a matter of time. Cleanup may be five to 10 million dollars; it may be three to five million dollars when the river gets flooded,” Robbins said. “It is a matter of when, not if, the river will be flooded.”

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