Appellate Court Affirms Illinois' Strong Coal Ash Protections, Rejecting Coal Company Attacks

Appellate Court Affirms Illinois’ Strong Coal Ash Protections, Rejecting Coal Company Attacks
Community Advocates Urge Illinois EPA to Swiftly Enforce Rules

Illinois -- An Illinois Appellate Court upheld the state’s coal ash rules in a Wednesday ruling, delivering a blow to coal plant owners Midwest Generation LLC, Vistra Corp., and Ameren Energy, which have repeatedly challenged the rules in an attempt to weaken environmental protections. In its comprehensive decision, the Court soundly rejected each and every one of the challenges to the rules brought by owners of coal ash ponds around the state, including challenges to groundwater monitoring requirements, the scope of the rules, and closure mandates. This ruling is a resounding victory for communities threatened by coal ash and should serve as a call to the Illinois EPA to require swift coal ash pond clean-up.

Illinois’ coal ash rules, adopted in 2021, aim to address the significant environmental and health hazards posed by coal ash waste. The rules task Illinois EPA with permitting coal ash ponds for operation and closure. The first permit applications were submitted to the Illinois EPA in October 2021, nearly two and half years ago. To date, no coal ash permits have been issued, leaving communities exposed to continuing coal ash pollution. 

“We need to see more action at the Illinois EPA on coal ash,” said Andrew Rehn, Climate Policy Director at Prairie Rivers Network. “Two and half years is too long to wait. The court decision makes it clear that our coal ash rules are here to stay, so it is time for the Illinois EPA to make decisions on permits and open them to public input.” 

Coal ash, a byproduct of coal combustion, contains toxic substances that can leach into groundwater and surface water, posing grave risks to human health and ecosystems. A report analyzing groundwater data from coal ash ponds throughout Illinois found that nearly all the ponds were contaminating groundwater with pollutants at levels exceeding health-based standards.  

Communities across Illinois are waiting for the state to enforce these rules and hold companies accountable for their polluting coal ash ponds. In Waukegan, dozens of community members as well as local organizations, including Clean Power Lake County, have called on the Pollution Control Board and Illinois EPA to take swift action to implement the rules, most recently during a public hearing regarding coal ash on the shores of Lake Michigan at Midwest Generation’s Waukegan station. 

“Our community has been waiting long enough for Midwest Generation to clean up its mess,” said Frank Pettis, Community Organizer with Clean Power Lake County. “Leaving this coal ash in the sandy soil on our lakefront is like leaving cancer under our mother's skin. It will be her sickness for hundreds or thousands of years, and it will be ours, too. The people of Waukegan want all of the coal ash removed from our lakefront now.”

“Waukegan and other communities around Illinois have waited too long for the coal ash ponds in their area to be cleaned up,” said Faith Bugel, attorney representing Sierra Club. “With the rules upheld, we urge the Illinois EPA to act quickly in requiring coal plant owners and operators to finally address the pollution from leaching coal ash ponds that has plagued Illinois for decades.”

In Vermilion County, Illinois’ only national scenic river, the Middle Fork, is threatened by three large coal ash ponds owned by Vistra subsidiary, Dynegy. A settlement with the State requires the company to remove the coal ash and store it in a new landfill built on-site. Despite this settlement, Illinois EPA has yet to approve the closure permit that would allow coal ash removal to begin.

“We are thrilled to see that the Court rejected all challenges to the coal ash rules,” said Jenny Cassel, Senior Attorney at Earthjustice. “The rules provide essential protections for Illinois’ waters and communities, and it is critical that the Illinois EPA implement them without any further delay. Residents of Vermilion County, Peoria, Joliet, Waukegan and so many other communities have waited far too long for these dirty ponds to be cleaned up. ”