Power Plant Waste Generates Controversy

Joppa, IL – An established coal-fired power plant in Joppa, Illinois is getting a new waste disposal facility. But some environmental agencies in the state worry the guidelines set up to monitor the coal ash and chemical wastes aren't comprehensive enough. They say the facility could cause long-term damage to the area. Angela Hatton has details.

According to the U-S Census Bureau, Joppa, Illinois, isn't even big enough to be considered a town. It's a village of a little over four hundred people less than a mile from the banks of the Ohio River. That proximity is one reason Prairie Rivers Network Water Resources Scientist Traci Barkley is concerned about coal ash disposal from the local Electric Energy, Incorporated (EEI) power plant. Barkley says a permit the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency is considering doesn't provide adequate limits on some pollutants.

"Some of the constituents of the waste can be toxic and need to be limited to protect both the Ohio River, the tributary that the water will be dumped into, and then groundwater from the wells."

Barkley says the group's main concern is convincing the IEPA to wait to grant any permits until new federal guidelines on how to dispose of coal ash are in place. She says the US-EPA has been developing those for nearly ten years, and they've set a deadline for the end of this year to release a draft. Barkley says that draft may classify coal ash as hazardous waste.

"If it is classified as hazardous then there's a whole other set of regulations that already exist that will determine how this power plant waste should be handled and disposed of to ensure that the environment and the public is protected."

But a regulating agency like the IEPA isn't focused on future changes to the laws. They're looking at whether the permits meet current federal Environmental Protection Act standards. IEPA Public Hearing Officer Dean Studer explains the permit currently under consideration only applies to discharging wastewater from a retention pond at the disposal facility.

"They are not allowed to discharge into waters of the United States or, in the case of Illinois issuing the permit, into waters of the state of Illinois, until such time as they have this permit."

The permitting process at the EPA can be confusing because the agency issues permits piecemeal. They have separate departments that oversee water, land, and air, so companies have to submit several applications to run their facilities. Organizations like Prairie Rivers don't approve of that. They say the entire project should be considered as one, and EPA branches should work together to regulate it.
That brings us to a public meeting in Joppa that was held at the beginning of December. The IEPA hosted the hearing to address questions raised by Prairie Rivers and the Illinois Chapter of the Sierra Club. The environmental groups generated press releases and flyers and around 60 people showed up. However Joppa Mayor Julia Johnson says many were confused.

"They were talking about absolutely two different properties."

The advertisement for the hearing referred to a waste landfill, a likely future part of the facility and one the environmental groups saw as integral to the retention pond discussion because waste from the landfill would drain out through the retention pond. Many local residents, though, were there to talk about a site north of town where a company not overseen by EEI has been dumping the plant's coal ash. Johnson explains.

"White, dust on your roads your fields, your yards, and, uh, flying through the air and you're breathing it they were concerned."

Johnson says when they realized what the meeting was actually about and heard the explanation for what the company, Met-South, an EEI subsidiary, planned to do to monitor the area, they weren't as fired up.

"We know through our experience with EEI that they've always provided the best sorts of, y'know, taking care of the area because they've got an investment here too, so nobody was really too worried about the EPA regulations and monitoring they were doing on their pond."

So no problem then, right? Not so fast. There's still plenty of gray area. The public comment period for the IEPA permit is open until January 6. Dean Studer says then they'll begin evaluating any concerns residents or other groups have and investigating issues they may raise. There's also the question of the new federal guidelines for coal ash disposal. No one is saying when those might go into effect, or even exactly what they'll change. And residents still have no answers on the landfill site north of town. That will require more EPA investigation. Studer does say public input is important to the permitting process, but it's extremely rare for public hearings to drastically effect the agency's decision.

"I think in the twenty-some years that I've worked for the agency I've only seen one case in which after a hearing the agency, after we had issued a draft permit, actually turned around and denied issuance of that permit."

When asked what he thought would happen in this particular case, Studer said, "No comment."