Illinois Will Make Polluters Pay for Coal Ash Cleanup

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.

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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.

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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.”

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About the author

Yessenia Funes

I mostly write about how environmental policy and climate change intersect with race and class though I occasionally write about animals, science, and art, too. We all need an escape, right?

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