Illinois Will Make Polluters Pay for Coal Ash Cleanup

Ew, coal.
Ew, coal.
Photo: AP

Coal is nasty business. So nasty, in fact, that a third U.S. state has passed legislation to help clean up the waste coal leaves behind.


On Monday, the Illinois Legislature passed the Coal Ash Pollution Prevention Act, which now needs only the governor’s signature to become law. When we burn coal, coal ash is what’s left behind. And it’s often full of dangerous toxins like mercury, arsenic, and lead, all of which can enter the groundwater or air if not stored or disposed of properly.

The soon-to-be law aims to regulate the closure process for the state’s many coal ash facilities. The federal coal ash rule, passed under former President Barack Obama, will require many of the state’s plants to close in the coming years, Earthjustice attorney Jennifer Cassel told Earther, because they no longer meet federal requirements. Many are unlined, meaning there’s no barrier to keep the coal ash from seeping into the ground, and some are too close to groundwater. This bill will help ensure that these closures run smoothly—all while keeping the public in the loop.

The companies responsible for the waste will have to foot the bill, too. Currently, the shutdown process doesn’t require any public input, but now companies will need to apply for some permits to get the ball rolling on closing a facility. That means public hearings and public comment, which will give Illinois residents a chance to voice their concerns and learn more about the closure process as soon as it begins.

“Illinois has a toxic coal ash problem and, as a state, we’ve been slow to addressing it,” Senator Scott Bennett, who sponsored the bill, said in a release from Earthjustice. “If we don’t act now, this toxic byproduct will be a part of our state’s environment for generations. We cannot afford to stand by while coal ash pollution threatens our water and our future.”

Illinois has the highest concentration of coal ash waste sites in the U.S., according to environmental legal nonprofit Earthjustice. And, like most sites in the U.S., they’re particularly bad when it comes to polluting. Just about every coal plant in the U.S. is contaminating our groundwater, a report from Earthjustice earlier this year found. And Illinois is no exception: 22 of its 24 sites reporting data to the federal government documented “unsafe levels of toxic pollutants in the groundwater,” per Earthjustice.

North Carolina and Virginia have taken similar legislative action. North Carolina, in particular, saw the dangers these sites pose when flooding after Hurricane Florence threatened precious water bodies with the coal ash from nearby plants. Illinois could suffer a similar fate, especially under the threat of spring floods, which have been especially awful this year.


“Coal ash represents a clear and present danger to water quality and human health,” Al Grosboll, legislative director at the Environmental Law and Policy Center, said in an Earthjustice release. “These problems have been ignored for too long.”

Yessenia Funes is climate editor at Atmos Magazine. She loves Earther forever.


Dense non aqueous phase liquid

Coal ash piles, when properly engineered for closure, make excellent foundation material for constructing utility scale PV solar plants. Coal ash doesn’t settle and off gas like typical closed landfills (e.g. Fresh Kills on Staten Island). Coal ash will harden like concrete for ground mounted racking systems.

On the other hand, coal ash could be used make sea walls. This assumes the metals become fully encapsulated into the pozzolanic matrix and thusly doesn’t leach out.

They key to waste sites is to convert them from liabilities to assets. A utility scale PV plant would generate cash flow on what is a useless cash draining dump.

Illinois being a legacy coal mining and burning state is finally moving forward on solar policy wise. If PV solar is half as successful as corn/ethanol solar policy in the state for the past 30 years, Illinois will surpass California and become the nation’s solar capital. And in the hands of Gov Pritzker and Chicago Mayor Lightfoot, will be the envy of the world.