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 co-chair shares his environmental justice journey in inspiring coloring book

Eddie Flores poses with environmental coloring book.
CPLC co-chair Eddie Flores is excited to share his environmental justice journey in a new coloring book.

Until he started high school, Eddie Flores had no idea that dangers hid in plain sight in Waukegan—and especially along its lakefront.

As a high schooler, he got involved with environmental groups. And that’s when he found out his hometown had five Superfund sites and a coal-burning power plant. 

“Growing up, I was never really taught about the coal plant or our Superfund sites in school and feel like it is something that really needs to be taught,” Eddie said in his Clean Power Lake County bio. “I hope to connect people—especially youth—to this fight since we’re the ones that are going to be inheriting this planet.”

He has already begun connecting people to the fight for climate justice. This summer, he is sharing his story in Eddie’s Environmental Justice Journey, an environmental justice (EJ) coloring book.

The bilingual EJ coloring book is a collaborative effort by Brushwood Center at Ryerson Woods, Clean Power Lake County (CPLC), and local artist Diana Nava.

The coloring book helps Lake County children understand how pollutants from lakefront industries affect them. It also shows how people can work together to bring about a better future for their community.

Complimentary coloring books will be available during a Meet and Greet event on Saturday, August 20. The free event runs from 6:30­ to 8:30 pm at Three Brothers Theatre in downtown Waukegan. Reserve your free ticket here.


CPLC Celebrates LGBTQ Pride Month With Waukegan PrideDrive

Car decorated for Waukegan Pride Drive
This year, Clean Power Lake County will make its second appearance in Waukegan’s PrideDrive. In 2020, CPLC and Faith in Place volunteers collaborated on entries. [Image: courtesy Celeste Flores]

As a community organization committed to justice for all people, Clean Power Lake County is pleased to celebrate Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer (LGBTQ) Pride Month. We gratefully acknowledge the impact that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals have had on local, national, and international history.

To kick off Pride Month, we are excited to participate for the second year in Waukegan’s PrideDrive. Members of our steering committee will decorate a car to show solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community.  

PrideDrive 2021 is Saturday, June 5, from 1 pm to 3 pm. Vehicles will roll out from 269 W. Clayton St., near Jack Benny Plaza in downtown Waukegan. For route information, visit the PrideDrive Facebook page. 

The celebration will continue with an after-party in front of Nightshade and Dark’s Pandemonium Brewing, 216 W. Clayton St. 

The Lake County Health Department (LCHD), Waukegan Main Street and the LGBTQ+ Center of Lake County will fill the streets with friends, fun and pride. 

This event will follow CDC, Illinois Department of Public Health and LCHD social distancing guidelines. 

4 Ways CEJA Can Help Lake County Communities

[Image: Canva]

By Whitney Richardson and Leah Hartung

Since its debut in the state capitol two years ago, Illinois’ Clean Energy Jobs Act (CEJA) has become incredibly popular. 

As of May 2020, 8 in 10 Illinois voters supported passing the comprehensive grassroots bill, according to a poll released by the Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition.

Now an updated version of the bill is generating new support. Last month, more than 1,500 people submitted pro-CEJA witness slips before a House Energy & Environment Committee hearing. A majority of the committee’s members voted to send CEJA to the House for a vote.

Let’s look at four ways that passing CEJA will help Lake County residents.

1. Relieve the heavy burden of toxic pollution 

CEJA will transition our power sector away from fossil fuels by 2030 and significantly expand clean energy generation. That will lead to significant improvements in air and water quality as well as in human health across Lake County. 

How? Coal-fired power plants emit vast quantities of heat-trapping carbon dioxide (which leads to climate change) plus dangerous mercury, sulfur dioxide, and particulate matter (soot). Solar energy systems do not produce air pollution or greenhouse gases. Wind turbines do not release emissions that can pollute the air or water, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.  

“The shift to clean energy offers a chance to prevent the worst impacts of climate change, while lessening the toll that dirty fossil fuels are currently wreaking on some of our most vulnerable communities,” the Natural Resources Defense Council said in a 2015 report.

Waukegan, Lake County’s largest city, is one such vulnerable community. Its residents have been paying a heavy toll for dirty fossil fuels for more than 100 years—thanks to the local coal-fired power plant. The plant, owned by NRG Energy, is the largest point source of air and water pollution in Lake County, according to the Sierra Club.

“Breathing polluted air contributes to an increase in health problems, including asthma attacks, heart attacks, strokes, respiratory and cardiovascular harm, reproductive harm, lung cancer, and early death. Some groups are particularly at risk—including children, older adults, communities of color, and those with existing health issues,” according to the American Lung Association.

CEJA also will provide economic development incentives for communities where coal plants have recently closed, help protect workers’ benefits and give them access to higher education and vocational training, and ensure that polluters pay for the environmental damage they cause. 

2. Hold utility companies accountable to consumers

CEJA includes strong provisions to protect consumers from rate hikes and prevent corruption, such as the yearslong bribery scheme to which ComEd recently admitted (Capitol News Illinois). 

One such provision is capacity market reform. 

Utility companies say the capacity market is a form of insurance: They are paid to guarantee that energy will be available during predicted peak use times. In reality, the capacity market has operated as a fossil fuel bailout mechanism: Coal-fired power plants are paid years in advance to supply energy to consumers during peak usage times that may or may not come down the line. 

CEJA will remove Illinois from the multistate capacity auction (conducted by the federally regulated PJM regional transmission organization). Instead, it will allow the Illinois Power Agency (IPA) to buy capacity. The IPA could then emphasize purchasing solar and wind energy rather than power created by burning fossil fuels. 

“If we implement CEJA, [Illinois] will stop paying $1.8 billion on fossil emitting coal plants and that’s something we’ll be able to tangibly see the impacts of on day one,” Rep. Ann Williams, chief House sponsor of CEJA, said in a February news conference. 

In other words, CEJA can remove undue economic and environmental burdens on Illinois residents while taking the fossil fuel industry off life support.

Another provision is ending automatic rate hikes for utility delivery services. CEJA calls for performance-based rate settings: The Illinois Commerce Commission would be allowed to approve only utility investments, programs, and rates that are cost-effective and contribute to a renewable energy electric grid.

3. Create environmental justice empowerment zones

CEJA will create Clean Energy Empowerment Zones (or Environmental Justice Empowerment Zones). These will offer tax breaks and other types of support for new clean energy businesses in areas where coal plants have closed in the past 10 years or where they may close in the future, according to an October 27, 2020, article by Kari Lydersen in Energy News Network.

The point is to help fossil fuel workers who might otherwise be left behind in the shift to clean energy as well as communities that have suffered disproportionately from environmental harms, unjust permitting, and limited job opportunities.

CEJA also will create Clean Jobs Workforce Hubs. The statewide network of frontline organizations will offer direct, ongoing support to minority and disadvantaged communities. For example, hubs could connect workers with job opportunities in the clean energy sector. 

As a recognized environmental justice community, Waukegan is slated under CEJA to become a Clean Energy Empowerment Zone as well as a Clean Jobs Workforce Hub. Among other things, this means Waukegan will get funding, job training resources, and guidance for economic development and revitalizing the Waukegan coal plant site (once it closes).  

These measures will be funded through emissions fees and coal severance fees.

4. Protect public health and our children’s future 

CEJA will help Illinois avoid the worst impacts of climate change in three ways:

  • Transitioning Illinois’ power sector completely away from fossil fuels by 2030
  • Supporting workers and communities impacted by the decline of coal
  • Significantly expanding clean energy generation and good-paying clean energy jobs  

It’s a vicious circle: Burning fossil fuels—coal, natural gas, gasoline, and diesel fuel—decreases air quality and emits carbon. Carbon release contributes to climate change. Climate change can put our health and safety at risk. Climate change also can make it harder to clean up pollution. 

Extreme heat and flooding have already cost Illinois more than $6.5 billion and hundreds of lives in recent decades. According to Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition estimates, if no action is taken, climate change by 2050 will cause nearly 1,200 deaths and more than $6 billion in damage each year in the Midwest. 

The damages will be even greater in areas with poor air quality, such as Lake County. 

Illinois can’t afford to wait: We need to pass CEJA this spring. 

Let’s make it happen!

CEJA is headed to the House floor for a vote this spring. If you haven’t contacted your representatives about CEJA, now is the time to voice your support. If you have contacted your representatives about, now is the time to remind them you hold them accountable for supporting this important bill. You can write them here

Next, ask your families, friends, and neighbors to contact legislators, too. We need legislators to hear, loud and clear: “Lake County supports CEJA!” 

Last, but not least: Join friends and neighbors in your district and coalitions across the state for Spring Virtual Lobby Day on April 26. You will have the chance to talk with your legislators about the need to pass CEJA.  

Our clean energy future can’t wait any longer.

Whitney Richardson lives in Vernon Hills, Illinois. She recently completed an MSc abroad in International Environmental Studies and conducts legal, legislative, and policy research. 

Leah Hartung is from Libertyville, Illinois. She is a rising senior at Emory University (Atlanta, Georgia) studying environmental science as well as a member of Clean Power Lake County’s steering committee.

CPLC Members to Lawmakers: Pass CEJA Now

Clean Power Lake County activists urge Illinois lawmakers to pass the Clean Energy Jobs Act in 2020.
Dulce Ortiz, co-chair of Clean Power Lake County, and other Waukegan activists urge Illinois lawmakers to pass the Clean Energy Jobs Act in 2020.

Storms are becoming more intense. Sea levels are rising. Disastrous wildfires are destroying record acreage (2.5 million this year) and impairing air quality over multistate regions. Climate change and COVID-19 are causing unprecedented public health and economic crises. There is no time to wait for cleaner, healthier, more affordable energy.

And we don’t have to wait. The Clean Energy Jobs Act (CEJA) will create thousands of jobs in Illinois’ growing clean energy industry—without raising taxes or hiking utility rates. No wonder 82% of Illinois voters support CEJA, according to a May 2020 poll released by the Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition. 

The thing is, Illinois lawmakers have yet to pass CEJA. So Dulce Ortiz, David Villalobos, and Eduardo Flores of Clean Power Lake County want to know: What is Gov. J.B. Pritzker waiting for?

CEJA will:

  • Put jobs and equity at the center of a clean energy future, creating well-paying jobs in the communities where they are needed the most
  • Guarantee cost savings on electricity bills for consumers through capacity market reform
  • Put Illinois on a path to 100% renewable energy by 2050 by taking advantage of the falling cost of wind and solar power and focusing on energy efficiency
  • Provide a just transition for fossil fuel workers and communities
  • Reduce air and water pollution from the fossil fuel industry

As we approach the final legislative session of 2020, will you stand for clean energy, clean air, and clean water? Tell lawmakers that CEJA must take precedence in the November veto session: Sign our “Pass CEJA” petition today.

 

CPLC Members Call for Stronger Coal Ash Rules

It is part of Clean Power Lake County’s DNA to support state action on toxic coal ash ponds.  So when the Illinois Pollution Control Board (IPCB) held its August hearing on proposed rules for the Coal Ash Pollution Prevention Act, we were there to call for stronger rules. 

Why was that important? Because the groundbreaking Coal Ash Pollution Prevention Act provided an important framework for addressing toxic coal ash waste (see CPLC Celebrates as Governor Signs Milestone Coal Ash Cleanup Bill Into Law) and a rulemaking process. However, it did not establish enforcement standards. Instead, it tasked the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) with drafting the actual rules for enforcing the law. 

The August hearing was IEPA’s first opportunity to testify in defense of its proposed rules. It also was the first time that industry representatives, environmental groups, and other public stakeholders could ask IEPA about the proposed rules.

Several Clean Power Lake County members—including folks who participated in IEPA coal ash listening sessions in Waukegan last September—made virtual statements during the public comment periods of the August hearing. 

Mary Mathews represents the League of Women Voters of Lake County, a coalition member of Clean Power Lake County. Mathews demanded strict measures for coal ash: “In order to protect the groundwater’s chemical integrity, rules for cleanup and closure of coal ash sites must provide permanent protection from coal ash pollution.”

She also stressed the importance of public participation in the decision-making process: “The public has the right to know about pollution levels, dangers to health and environment, and proposed policies and options. Accordingly, the rules should include expanded outreach and require that opportunities, materials, and documents be made available to non-English speaking stakeholders. Additionally, hearings should be held in easily accessible locations, at convenient times, and, when possible, in the area concerned.”

Leah Hartung, an intern for Clean Power Lake County, stressed that improper coal ash management makes drinking water unsafe: “Since groundwater monitoring began in 2010, the groundwater at the Waukegan power plant has been found 400 times to have the contaminants related to coal ash above allowable levels. This is unacceptable. Safe drinking water is a human right, not a privilege.”

When IPCB holds its September 29-October 1 hearing—its second and final hearing on the proposed coal ash rules—Clean Power Lake County members will be there once again. We will stress the importance of adopting the strongest possible rules to protect us and residents of other communities burdened by coal ash pollution. 

Here’s how you can help: Email your comments to Clerk of the Board Don Brown by October 15.

Want background information to use to prepare written comments? Download Coal Ash Rulemaking Document by Prairie Rivers Network and Coal Ash Backgrounder by Earthjustice.

Illinois has the highest concentration of coal ash impoundments in the country.

There are two unlined coal ash ponds at the NRG Energy coal-fired power plant on Waukegan’s lakefront.

Everybody Counts

Everyone counts in the 2020 Census.
The US Census is one time when everyone counts—babies, children, teens, adults, older adults. [Alekss/Dreamstime]
Every 10 years, the United States counts the people in this country in a process called the census. This is one time when everyone counts—babies, children, teens, adults, older adults.

The 2020 Census will provide a snapshot of America’s population—who we are, where we live, and so much more.

The census matters

Here’s why census information is vital for us and our community:

  • Determines how many representatives each state gets in Congress as well as how congressional and state legislative district boundaries are redrawn
  • Determines how more than $675 billion in federal funds are distributed yearly to more than 100 programs, including Medicaid, Head Start, block grants for community mental health services, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)
  • Helps communities plan for a variety of resident needs, including new roads, schools, and emergency services
  • Helps businesses decide where to open places to shop

Census results affect our community every day.

Think of your morning commute: Census results influence highway planning and construction, as well as grants for buses, subways, and other public transit systems.

Or think of your local schools: Census results help determine how money is distributed for the Head Start program and for grants that support teachers and special education.

The list goes on, including programs to support rural areas, to restore wildlife, to prevent child abuse, to prepare for wildfires, and to supply housing assistance for older adults.

It’s time to raise our hands  

There’s one condition: To ensure we get our fair share, we all must raise our hands and participate.

Right now, our area is trailing Illinois as a whole for completed census forms, according to the United States Census Bureau. While 66.6% of Illinois residents have completed their forms, only 60.5% of residents of the Illinois 10th Congressional District have done so. For Zion, the response is 59.1%. For Waukegan, the response is only 55.9%.

The good news is, online, phone and mailed self-responses will be accepted through October 31. Visit my2020census.gov to begin.

Visit 2020census.gov/en/contact-us.html to find out how you can speak with representatives in any of 14 languages.

Census takers will interview non-responding households in person from August 11 through October 31 in most parts of the country.

For more information, get the 2020 Census facts at a glance.

Sources: United States Census Bureau, IL Count Me In 2020

 

Free COVID Testing Station Opens in Waukegan

Illinois National Guard officer explains COVID-19 self-test
In an Illinois National Guard video posted on Facebook, an officer at the Waukegan testing station explains how to do the COVID-19 self-test.

A new drive-through COVID-19 testing site opened today at the vehicle emissions testing station at 2161 Northwestern Ave., Waukegan (southeast corner of Sunset and Northwestern avenues).  

Testing at this location will continue until further notice. The site is expected to be open seven days per week.

Testing facility details

  • Opening day: Sunday, May 3, 2020
  • Hours: 7 days a week, 8 a.m. until 4 p.m. or until 500 tests are completed
  • Location: 2161 Northwestern Ave., Waukegan
  • Cost: Free
  • Test results: within 4-7 days
  • More details in English
  • Mas detalles en Español

Illinois National Guard soldiers will conduct tests.

Links to government websites, news articles, and audio resources: CORONAVIRUS/COVID-19: Helpful Resources

CPLC Co-chair Will Attend State of the Union Address as Sen. Duckworth’s Guest

Senator Tammy Duckworth with Celeste and Yolanda Flores of Waukegan.
Sen. Tammy Duckworth welcomes Celeste Flores, co-chair of Clean Power Lake County, and her mother, Yolanda Flores, to the U.S. Capitol. Celeste will attend the State of the Union address on February 4 as the senator’s guest. [Photo courtesy of Sen. Tammy Duckworth]
 

Celeste Flores, co-chair of Clean Power Lake County and Lake County Outreach Director for Faith in Place, will attend the State of the Union address at the U.S. Capitol on February 4 as the guest of Sen. Tammy Duckworth.

“Every American has the right to breathe safe air, drink clean water and live on uncontaminated land regardless of their ZIP code, the size of their wallet and the color of their skin. However, that’s often not the case for low-income communities and people of color,” Duckworth said.

“I’m so pleased to bring Celeste—a tireless advocate for environmental justice—as my guest to the State of the Union so together, we can shine a light on these issues and raise awareness of the fact that these communities face public health challenges at alarming rates while too many in power look the other way,” Duckworth added.

Flores, who was born and raised in Lake County, saw the devastation of mountaintop removal while a student at Bellarmine University in Kentucky. After graduating from college and spending a year as an AmeriCorps volunteer in Appalachia, she returned to Lake County. It was then that she learned about local environmental justice efforts to ensure Waukegan a just transition away from the coal-fired plant on the shore of Lake Michigan.

In November 2019, Flores participated in a Senate hearing—chaired by Duckworth and organized by the Senate Democrats’ Special Committee on the Climate Crisis—about the ways climate change uniquely impacts environmental justice communities.

“Growing up in Waukegan, a low-income and working-class area, and as a child of immigrant parents in a predominantly Latinx and African American community, I’ve seen firsthand how environmental justice communities in Lake County carry the burden of polluting industries and are forced to deal with the consequences of environmental injustice for generations,” said Flores.

“The time to act is now,” Flores added. “By joining together with elected officials like Sen. Duckworth, who has been a staunch advocate for environmental justice, we can lift up the voices of those disproportionally affected and achieve our shared vision for social change that is led by those most directly impacted.”

 

CPLC to Host Prep Meeting for IEPA Sessions on Waukegan Coal Plant

Lake County residents line the Lake Michigan shoreline to demand a fossil fuel-free, clean energy future for their communities. [Karen Long MacLeod/CPLC photo]
The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency will hold two public sessions in Waukegan in October on issues related to the Waukegan coal plant—and we want to be ready!

Please join Clean Power Lake County for an important community information and work meeting on Wednesday, September 25, 7 pm to 8:30 pm, at Whittier Elementary School, 901 N. Lewis Ave., Waukegan, Illinois.

We’ll work on comments for two upcoming IEPA visits to Waukegan:

RSVP now.

For more information, contact CPLC at cleanpowerlc@gmail.com or 224-212-9156.