CPLC Celebrates Passage of Landmark Legislation to Clean Up Coal Ash

Coal ash pollution seeps into the Vermilion River in central Illinois. [Prairie Rivers Network photo]

Clean Power Lake County joined a dozen statewide and regional partner organizations on May 28, 2019, in celebrating the passage of SB9, The Coal Ash Pollution Prevention Act, by the Illinois Legislature. The bill now heads to the desk of Gov. J.B. Pritzker for signature.

The groundbreaking bill addresses the many waste pits filled with coal ash, the toxic byproduct of burning coal, located all over the state:

  • Creates a regulatory framework to ensure polluters, not taxpayers, pay for needed closure and cleanup.
  • Guarantees public participation and transparency around cleanups for affected communities.
  • Provides the Illinois EPA the funds it needs to properly oversee closure and cleanup.
  • Requires Illinois to put in place standards for coal ash impoundments that are at least as protective as federal coal ash rule requirements, with additional protections against dust and water pollution.

Illinois — which has the highest concentration of coal ash impoundments in the country — now is the third state in the country to pass legislation providing significant coal ash protections above and beyond federal requirements. Virginia and North Carolina also are addressing coal ash through state-level legislation.

The NRG Energy coal-fired power plant on Waukegan’s lakefront has two unlined coal ash ash ponds.

“The passage of SB9 out of the general assembly is a historic step forward for environmental justice communities across the state, like Waukegan,” said Dulce Ortiz, co-leader of Clean Power Lake County. “Environmental justice communities still have a long fight to assure community members have the basic human right of breathing clean air and drinking clean water. We call on Gov. Pritzker to prioritize the voices of a community like Waukegan and protect them from polluters like NRG Energy.”

“The passage of SB9 is a historical win for environmental justice communities throughout our state,” said Celeste Flores, with the Faith In Place Action Fund and co-leader of Clean Power Lake County. “People of faith across Illinois applaud the leadership of our elected leaders in the Senate and House for taking action on coal ash contamination of our land and water and implore the general assembly to continue to hold polluters accountable for injustice, oppression, and environmental degradation.”

The Illinois EPA has found groundwater contamination from coal ash waste sites dating back to 2009. A 2018 report from environmental groups Environmental Integrity Project, Earthjustice, Prairie Rivers Network and Sierra Club analyzing data collected by ash dump owners under the federal coal ash rule found that 22 of 24 of Illinois’ reporting coal ash dump sites have unsafe levels of toxic pollutants in the groundwater.

We thank the many Lake County elected officials who supported this important legislation: State Senators Melinda Bush, Terry Link, and Julie Morrison; and State Representatives Rita Mayfield, Joyce Mason, Dan Didech, Mary Edly-Allen, Bob Morgan, and Sam Yingling.

We also thank everyone who signed petitions, made phone calls, and visited your elected officials. We are stronger together.

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Launching the Lake County Climate Action Pledge

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At a time when the federal government has abdicated its role in climate leadership, public officials and residents across the country are stepping forward to take local action against the climate crisis.

Leading the way in Lake County, Illinois, is Lake County Board Chairman Aaron Lawlor. He recently launched an initiative in partnership with the Sierra Club to encourage local community leaders and public officials to deliver local, bipartisan action on the climate crisis.

“With vision and determination, Lake County can move beyond coal, toward a 100% clean energy future, and invest in fiscally and environmentally sustainable infrastructure. Climate action isn’t just an issue for our president to fail on or Congressional leaders to ignore. Climate action needs local leaders to step up and lead us forward, and it’s going to start right here in Lake County!” Lawlor said.

Lawlor announced the initiative, the Lake County Climate Action Pledge, before a crowd of 175 Lake County residents and public officials who gathered at the Waukegan lakefront for the 4th Annual Clean Power Lake County Waukegan Beach Rally and Cleanup.

The new initiative consists of three pillars:

  • Move Lake County beyond coal
  • Adopt ambitious clean energy goals
  • Build climate-resilient infrastructure

The solutions to these issues are related to solutions to serious social issues, said Dulce Ortiz, a Waukegan resident who spoke at the rally on behalf of the Sierra Club.

“We sit at an unprecedented and, frankly, dark moment in our country’s history that has to be spoken to—when the President refuses to denounce racism and white supremacy, when immigrant communities and Muslims are under attack, when the head of the EPA is a climate denier and is actively rolling back critical environmental policies, leaving us to protect our own communities,” Ortiz said. “These are not separate issues: They are absolutely interconnected and so, too, are their solutions. We are called to new levels of courage to speak out on these threats to our community and environment and to take decisive action at the local level in partnership with one another.”

Eight public officials have already joined Lawlor in taking the Lake County Climate Action Pledge:

  • Lake County Board Members Vance Wyatt, Diane Hewitt, Judy Martini, Mary Ross Cunningham, Sandy Hart, and Ann Maine
  • State Senator Melinda Bush
  • State Representative Sam Yingling

Both the Lake County News-Sun and Daily Herald published good recaps of the August 26 rally.

Rallying for Clean Jobs

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We rode to Springfield on a bus. We rallied on the steps of the state capitol building. We conferred with our elected representatives.

We were 43 people from Waukegan and nearby Lake County communities—and we added our voices to those of more than 300 like-minded people from across the state on April 21, calling for prompt passage of the Illinois Clean Jobs Bill (HB 2607/SB 1485).

The bipartisan Illinois Clean Jobs Bill is supported by more than 41 co-sponsors in the House, 21 co-sponsors in the Senate, and a coalition of more than 160 businesses and 60 organizations.

The bill is designed to help consumers save money on energy, bring clean energy investment to communities, strengthen local tax bases and create family-sustaining jobs, according to the bill’s legislative co-sponsors.

Unfortunately, a full year has passed since the Clean Jobs Bill was introduced in the Illinois legislature.

In that time, Illinois has lost 152 solar jobs and 431 wind jobs. At the same time, Michigan has added nearly 700 solar jobs and Ohio has added more than 500 solar jobs, according to Michelle Knox, owner of WindSolar USA in Owaneco, who spoke at the Environmental Lobby Day rally.

“We simply cannot afford to be here a year from today, listing more and more states that, by then, will have passed us by,” said Sen. Don Harmon of Oak Park, a lead sponsor of the bill. “Illinois needs to act, and we need to act now.”

For many Illinois residents attending the rally, the shift to a clean energy economy is personal.

Among them, Dulce Ortiz, a Waukegan resident and a leader with the Clean Power Lake County Campaign.

“I am here because every family has the right to breathe clean air and have a healthy environment. Clean energy will bring jobs and opportunity to places like Waukegan, which desperately needs economic development,” Ortiz said. “It’s time to get these policies right. Bringing those projects home is a win-win for everyone in the community. We bring in more jobs and make sure my community is not left behind in the new economy. More importantly, it means the air our children breathe is less likely to make them sick.”