CPLC, allies sue EPA for exempting half a billion tons of toxic coal ash from health protections

US Environmental Protection Agency building
The US Environmental Protection Agency faces a lawsuit for exempting at least half a billion tons of coal ash in nearly 300 landfills in 38 states from standards designed to protect people from cancer-causing chemicals. [Image: Skyhobo-Canva]

Clean Power Lake County and other environmental, civil rights, and community groups today filed a lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in federal court for letting hundreds of toxic coal ash landfills off the hook from complying with important federal health and environmental protections.

Earthjustice mined databases buried in EPA archives and found that the agency exempted at least half a billion tons of coal ash in nearly 300 landfills in 38 states from standards designed to protect people from cancer-causing chemicals. The landfills are sited disproportionately in low-income communities and communities of color (see map). It is enough coal ash to fill train cars that could go around the earth two times.

Plaintiffs’ Attorney Mychal Ozaeta from Earthjustice said, “Power plant records reveal that about half of the toxic coal ash waste in the US is entirely exempt from any federal health protections. This is outrageous. The coal power industry is poisoning drinking water sources and the air we breathe while causing global warming.”

When the EPA adopted the first-ever rules in 2015 for toxic ash generated when burning coal, the agency excluded coal ash landfills and waste piles that stopped receiving new waste before the law went into effect. It also didn’t cover landfills at power plants that had already stopped producing power.

On August 1, more than 100 organizations in dozens of states and Puerto Rico wrote to the EPA urging them to stop exempting these abandoned landfills filled with coal ash (which is also known as “coal combustion residuals” or “CCR”).

The EPA has noted that the risks to humans associated with exposure to coal ash include “cancer in the skin, liver, bladder and lungs,” “neurological and psychiatric effects,” “cardiovascular effects,” “damage to blood vessels,” and “anemia.”

The lawsuit says what we know about the extent of water contamination from coal ash “is just the tip of the iceberg.”

The suit describes an Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice study of industry data: “Groundwater contamination exceeding federal health-based standards was found at 76% of the regulated CCR [coal combustion residuals] landfills. Regulated landfills are newer and more likely to be lined than the older landfills EPA exempted from the CCR rule. Thus, the exempted inactive CCR landfills are likely to be releasing even higher levels of toxic contaminants.”

The lawsuit states, “Coal-fired power plants generate one of the largest toxic solid waste streams in the United States. In this voluminous waste stream are large quantities of heavy metals and metal compounds such as arsenic, boron, cadmium, chromium, cobalt, lead, lithium, mercury, molybdenum, radium, selenium, and thallium.”

Nonprofit legal organization Earthjustice filed the lawsuit in US District Court in Washington, DC, on behalf of plaintiffs Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment (Tennessee), Indiana State Conference and LaPorte County Branch of the National Association for Advancement of Colored People, Hoosier Environmental Council (Indiana), Sierra Club, Clean Power Lake County (Illinois), and Environmental Integrity Project.

Among the hundreds of landfills the EPA has exempted from their protections is NRG Energy’s Waukegan Generating Station, where an unregulated coal ash fill has been contaminating groundwater since at least 2010.

“For years we have fought hard for our community to be protected, for our community to be respected and for our community to be seen,” said Dulce Ortiz, co-chair of Clean Power Lake County. “For starters, this can be done by ensuring the EPA protects our community by addressing the coal ash landfill that sits on our lakefront. Minority and economically disadvantaged communities are disproportionately burdened by pollution and the Waukegan community is no different. The EPA must do what it was intended to do, to protect our community residents and our environment.”

Sierra Club Attorney Bridget Lee said, “The continued storage of toxic coal ash in unlined landfills without groundwater monitoring flies in the face of EPA’s own science and risk assessments and threatens fenceline communities across the country. The agency must act now to close this dangerous loophole.”

According to the lawsuit, if the EPA had followed the law (the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act), “basic safeguards would be in place for inactive CCR landfills that would keep coal ash toxins out of our drinking water, air, rivers, lakes, and streams, and require remediation at the scores of sites already known to be contaminating water at dangerous levels.”

Additional resources
Related case documents and news

CPLC: 2021 highlights

  • Clipping of Chicago Tribune front page
  • Volunteers in Zoom room
  • Volunteers with rainbow "Love Wins" sign
  • Youths with signs at Illinois statehouse
  • Volunteers with trash bags at park
  • Youths at desk in CPLC office
  • Governor Pritzker at Chicago lakefront
  • Dulce Ortiz of Clean Power Lake County
  • CPLC leaders at Chicago lakefront
  • Man with award at Brushwood Center
  • Dulce Ortiz on beach by coal plant

As we reflect on the events of 2021, we feel grateful for—and empowered by—our community and our shared vision to make our world a better place. Clean Power Lake County (CPLC) is proud to highlight some of our recent accomplishments.

February

  • February 7: CPLC co-chair Dulce Ortiz joined the Illinois Environmental Justice Commission as a voting member. The commission advises the Governor and state entities on environmental justice and related community issues.
  • February 8: Four members of CPLC’s steering committee joined a one-day hunger strike to protest the move of General Iron Industries’ metal shredding facility from Chicago’s affluent, predominantly white Lincoln Park neighborhood to Chicago’s predominantly Latino Southeast Side.

April

  • April 15: The Illinois Pollution Control Board adopted rules for closing more than 70 coal ash ponds across the state—including two on Waukegan’s lakefront. CPLC members worked hard to make this happen!
  • April 18: CPLC demanded that President Joe Biden’s administration address the Environmental Protection Agency’s failure to investigate ethylene oxide (EtO) polluters in Lake County—or to warn residents about the carcinogen.

May

  • May 17: “Transparency is key,” said CPLC co-chair Celeste Flores in a Chicago Tribune front-page story about Medline’s failure to report toxic ethylene oxide emissions to the Environmental Protection Agency.
  • May 24: CPLC organized one of several phone banking events supporting the Clean Energy Jobs Act (CEJA).

June

  • June 2: CPLC participated in the Waukegan Pride Drive for the second consecutive year to help celebrate LGBTQ Pride Month. 
  • June 14: CPLC and allies told the Chicago Tribune that toxic waste left behind by coal-fired power plants could endanger drinking water for years to come.
  • June 15: CPLC volunteers journeyed to Springfield to advocate for passage of Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s comprehensive, equitable climate bill.
  • June 17: NRG announced plans to close the coal-fired power plant in Waukegan. “Hundreds of volunteers, thousands of hours, helped make this day a reality,” said CPLC co-chair Dulce Ortiz. 

July

August 

  • August 2: Big win! After meeting with CPLC, the Environmental Protection Agency decided to revise rules for how coal-fired power plants—including the one in Waukegan—can dispose of contaminated wastewater.
  • August 7: CPLC partnered with Illinois Sen. Adrianne Johnson to organize a clean-up at North Chicago’s Foss Park. 

September 

October

  • October 2: CPLC steering committee member Eddie Flores received the Environmental Youth Leadership Award from Brushwood Center at Ryerson Woods. 

December 

  • December 5: CPLC’s fight for clean air, clean water, and healthy soil in Waukegan was the subject of the front-page story in the Sunday edition of the Chicago Tribune. CPLC co-chair Dulce Ortiz and steering committee members Eddie Flores and Karen Long MacLeod were interviewed.
  • December 15-16: CPLC volunteers asked dozens of questions during Midwest Generation’s public meetings on proposed plans to close coal ash ponds on the Waukegan lakefront.  

2022 vision 

This year, we feel all the more energized to accomplish our mission: ensuring clean air, clean water, and healthy soil for every Lake County community member and achieving the self-determination of those disproportionately impacted by environmental pollution.

Priorities for 2022: 

  • Continue pursuing a just transition for the Waukegan coal plant. This means ensuring that coal ash is removed so it cannot contaminate Lake Michigan, the source of drinking water for 6 million people in four states. It also means ensuring proper notification and public engagement if and when the company plans any demolition at the site. 
  • Monitoring efforts to implement the Coal Ash Pollution Prevention Act (signed into law in 2019) to hold coal plant owners accountable for clean-ups.
  • Serving in key working groups to ensure effective implementation of the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act (signed into law in 2021).

President-Elect Biden: Make Right on 7 Green Priorities

President-Elect Joe Biden
President-Elect Joe Biden, shown speaking at a 2020 campaign event. [“Joe Biden” by Gage Skidmore, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0]

By Whitney Richardson

Dear President-Elect Biden,

We see you packing your (figurative) bags in preparation for your move into the White House. As you make plans to enact your presidential agenda, we urge you to use your executive powers to simultaneously and swiftly make right on all of the following:

We must remember we are here under the condition that our planet—experienced through our micro-environments—can retain the capacity to sustain us. It’s time to restore this essential lesson within our collective conscience. Climate change won’t wait. Our health won’t wait. Meaningful action can’t wait.

Sincerely, 

Clean Power Lake County
Waukegan, Illinois

Whitney Richardson lives in Vernon Hills, Illinois, and recently completed a Master of Science degree in international environmental studies. 

Demanding a Forward-Looking Plan for NRG Coal Plant Site

Clean Power petitioners
Clean Power Lake County coalition members gather in the lobby of Waukegan’s City Hall, ready to deliver 2,082 petitions to public officials. [Photo by Karen Long MacLeod/courtesy of Clean Power Lake County Campaign]
Earlier this month, we proudly delivered 2,082 petitions from Waukegan residents to Mayor Wayne Motley and members of the Waukegan City Council, asking them to convene a task force of key stakeholders to address the future of NRG Energy’s coal-fired power plant on the Waukegan lakefront.

The NRG plant, the largest source of air and water pollution in Lake County, was named one of the nation’s worst environmental justice offenders in a 2012 NAACP report.

We know that the 57-year-old plant endangers the health of people living in Waukegan and other Lake County communities. We believe that the plant also stands in the way of meaningful lakefront revitalization and economic growth in Waukegan.

Representing each of the city’s nine wards, we delivered a powerful message: Residents throughout the city want a transition plan that establishes a retirement date for the plant, provides pathways to new opportunities for workers who aren’t eligible for retirement, provides a site remediation plan, and provides recommendations for site reuse that account for Waukegan’s tax base.

For detailed comments, see Waukegan Residents Deliver 2,082 Petitions to City Council Demanding Forward-Looking Plan for NRG Coal Plant Site.

Five of the nine city council members thanked us for actively reaching out to community members and demonstrating a strong commitment to bettering our city.

Mayor Motley has not yet committed to convening the transition task force, but said he has reached out to NRG Energy about coming to the table to talk.

So far, NRG has said “no.” According to a December 17, 2015, article in the Lake County News-Sun, NRG spokesman David Gaier said the Waukegan Generation Station will continue to function as a coal-burning plant indefinitely.

 

 

Praying for Environmental Justice

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Let relief come to all people impacted by pollution and climate change. 

Let NRG Energy work with us to end the burning of coal and to bring clean energy to our community.

Let us have the strength to continue our struggle for environmental justice.

Let our community, our lakefront and our environment enjoy a rebirth.

These simple prayers seemed to carry special power on Sunday, November 1, when voiced by Waukegan faith leaders and more than 150 Lake County residents commemorating Dia de los Muertos in a march and vigil organized by the Clean Power Lake County Campaign.

From senior citizens to toddlers, these community members processed solemnly, heads bowed, from Bowen Park to NRG Energy’s coal-fired power plant on the shore of Lake Michigan. (The NRG plant, the largest source of air and water pollution in Lake County, was named one of the nation’s worst environmental justice offenders in a 2012 NAACP report.)

Near the coal plant, they listened intently as speakers explained how industrial pollution in Waukegan continues to pose significant health risks for local residents. They also heard how ongoing pollution from the NRG coal plant stands in the way of vibrant economic redevelopment that might attract recreational tourism and new businesses to Waukegan.

Together, they called on Waukegan Mayor Wayne Motley to bring NRG Energy to the table to set a clear retirement date for the coal plant and establish plans to protect impacted workers and remediate the site.

Building on that strong sentiment, Clean Power Lake County supporters have begun collecting petitions addressed to Mayor Motley and Waukegan’s City Council. The petitions urge Motley to convene a transition task force to plan for the future of the NRG coal plant site so Waukegan can move forward as a healthier community with meaningful options for lakefront revitalization and economic growth.

Click here to sign the Clean Power Lake County petition for clean air in Waukegan and Lake County!

 

Embracing a Vision of a More Beautiful Lakefront

Volunteers pick up trash on Waukegan's beach.
More than 120 people who live near Waukegan’s coal-fired power plant collect bags of trash at Waukegan Municipal Beach during Clean Power Lake County Campaign’s second annual beach cleanup. [Photo by Karen Long MacLeod/Clean Power Lake County Campaign]
As morning showers gave way to afternoon sunshine on August 23, approximately 120 Lake County residents headed to the beach on Waukegan’s beautiful lakefront to rally for clean air, clean water, and clean energy.

First, we swept the beach and the adjoining dunes to take care of the pollution we can control–like litter–as part of our second annual beach cleanup. Then we called for NRG Energy to act to retire its old and dirty coal-fired power plant, which stands less than a mile north of Waukegan’s swimming beach.

Clean Power Lake County volunteers hold "We Are Waukegan" canvas banner
With NRG Energy’s dirty coal-fired power plant in the background, volunteers hold a canvas banner proclaiming why Waukeganites care about clean air and clean water. [Photo by Karen Long MacLeod/Clean Power Lake County Campaign.]
The NRG plant, the largest source of air and water pollution in Lake County, was named one of the nation’s worst environmental justice offenders in a 2012 NAACP report.

“For too long, corporate polluters like NRG Energy have taken advantage of our lakefront and made our families sick,” Maryfran Troha told volunteers as they finished the August 23 cleanup.

Troha, a lifelong Waukegan resident, represents Clean Power Lake County coalition partners Christ Episcopal Church and the League of Women Voters of Lake County.

“I’m sick of it. I’m ready for a clean Waukegan for all of us because we deserve so much better,” Troha said.

Students with clean air and climate action signs
Students participating in the beach cleanup and rally make it clear that they want clean air. [Photo by Karen Long MacLeod/Clean Power Lake County Campaign.]
The most immediate thing we can do to help protect Waukegan’s lakefront is to attend the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency Clean Air Act hearing on September 2, 2015. The hearing will focus on the operating permit for NRG’s coal-fired power plant in Waukegan.

RSVP to stand with Clean Power Lake County and Sierra Club to fight for clean air in Waukegan and Lake County!

Event Summary

What: Illinois EPA Hearing on Waukegan Coal Plant
Where: Illinois Beach State Park Resort, 1 Lakefront Drive, Zion, IL 60099 [map]
When: Wednesday, September 2, 2015, 7 p.m. .
RSVP and questions: Alex Morgan

Back to the Beach: Taking Care of Waukegan’s Lakefront

A year ago, the Clean Power Lake County Campaign gathered more than 120 people from all walks of life to clean up Waukegan’s Municipal Beach and to demand new clean-energy policies for their hometowns. Students, parents and senior citizens had one thing in common: outrage toward NRG Energy, whose coal-fired power plants are some of the worst carbon polluters in Illinois.

NRG’s coal plants have faced numerous lawsuits for violations of the Clean Air Act, violations related to high levels of dangerous pollutants in groundwater near coal ash dumps adjacent to the coal plants, and repeated sulfur dioxide violations.

That’s why concerned citizens were willing to draw a line across the sand as part of Clean Power Lake County’s “Hands Across the Sand” event:

Clearly, standing together makes us stronger.

“I’m still convinced there’s a lot of power in people,” said Tracy Fox of Peoria Families Against Toxic Waste in Peoria, Illinois, stated. “We in central Illinois stand in solidarity with Lake County, and hope we can do great things together.”

This sentiment was echoed by Maria Contreras, a Waukegan High School student: “I know that I can make a difference.”

Now we have another opportunity to stand together. The Clean Power Lake County Campaign will host its second annual Waukegan beach cleanup on August 23. Together, we will celebrate our beautiful lakefront and discuss how we can protect it in the long run.

Event Summary
WhatClean Power Lake County Beach Cleanup/Limpieza de Nuestra Playa
Where: Waukegan Municipal Beach, 201 Sea Horse Drive, Waukegan, IL 60085
When: Sunday, August 23, 2015, 1 p.m.
RSVP and questions: Alex Morgan