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Coal ash pollution persists in Vermilion River

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Coal ash pollution persists in Vermilion River

By Olivia Welshans, Staff Writer

Annamae Dziallo has fond memories of the Vermilion River. She remembers taking trips to Kickapoo State Park, skipping rocks on the river and bonding with members of Students for Environmental Concerns.

However, she can’t help but think about the three coal ash pits located just upstream, leaking toxic chemicals and pollutants into Illinois’ only national scenic river.

Dziallo is the leader of Beyond Coal, an initiative within Students for Environmental Concerns that aims to stop fossil fuel companies from sponsoring the University.

Coal ash, the source of the pollution, is what is left over after coal is burned. It contains toxic metals and chemicals that can cause birth defects, cancer and brain damage in humans and harm wildlife, said Pam Richart, co-founder of the Eco-Justice Collaborative, a Champaign-based nonprofit that raises public awareness of environmental issues.

Dziallo said this issue should be brought to students’ attention, especially those that have taken trips to Kickapoo State Park, which is downstream of the coal ash pits and just a few miles east of campus.

“In central Illinois, there are not many water bodies that are accessible to students on campus. I think it is pretty important that we keep their health and integrity intact,” Dziallo said.

Rebecca Vining, president of Students for Environmental Concerns, said she was concerned the disregard of the coal ash pollution will negatively influence how students view the environment.

“The way people see nature and how it is presented to them is the way they are going to continue to treat it,” Vining said. “We have a bunch of students all using this area and how they see it treated is how they are going to grow up and treat nature.”

The ash pits, the remnants of the now closed Vermillion Power Station, are located in the middle fork of the Vermilion River and have been an environmental hazard for years, Richart said.

Gabions, wire cages filled with rocks lining the banks of the river, were put in place to contain coal ash pollution from seeping into the river. However, the gabions have been prone to erosion and disrepair, Richart said.  

Texas-based Vistra Energy Corp., which merged with the former owner of the ash pits, Dynegy, recently filed an application with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to repair the gabions, she said.

Richart said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recently changed the form of the project’s permit from one that is used to fast-track small projects to a version that would require more analysis of alternative solutions.

This change is something Richart is glad to hear, because it also allows for public interest review and  public comment.

Richart and her organization have criticized Vistra’s solution for being unsustainable and not a solution for the long term; the company’s previous efforts to s tabilize the riverbank in this way have been proven unsuccessful.

“Even if they cap it, the water is going to continue to move through the pits into the ground water into the river system,” Richart said. “Capping it means we are accepting some level of pollution for the long term, and that is not good here.”

Coal ash pollution is not only an issue in Illinois, Richart said. Problems with coal ash pollution have also risen in North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Florida.

While other states have required utilities to move coal ash away from waterways, Illinois has no laws in place that require it, Richart said.

“The biggest concern we have for Vermillion County is a breach of the coal ash pits and the threat of a spill which could send tons of sludge down the river all the way to the Wabash (River),” Richart said.

Gubernatorial candidates J.B. Pritzker and Gov. Bruce Rauner have yet to address the issue, she said.

Dziallo said candidates should make this an issue in their campaigns, because it needs recognition on the state level.

“It needs politicians to recognize it as an immediate issue and it needs to be addressed,” Dziallo said.

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