City, state representatives call for complete removal of coal ash from Waukegan power plant

The representatives gathered at Waukegan City Hall for a news conference Monday to address heightened environmental concerns surrounding a coal plant owned and operated by Midwest Generation, a branch of New Jersey-based power company NRG Energy. While the plant’s coal-fired units were shut down in June, two coal ash ponds — pools of toxins that form after burning coal — remain.

Officials said NRG should do more to clean up its coal operations before moving on to its next project: The company will receive a combined $158.4 million from a state grant program for energy storage projects at its Waukegan and Will County coal plant sites.

“We don’t want to see those ponds left as new energy comes in. We need to finish one thing before we start something else. We need to make sure that those ponds are handled correctly,” Waukegan Mayor Ann Taylor said. “I’m a big proponent of being proactive rather than reactive.”

NRG intends to seal coal ash dumping grounds that have been left throughout the site’s history. For its two most recent coal ash ponds, NRG plans to remove the site’s west pond and cap-and-seal the east pond, which contains an estimated 71,000 cubic yards of coal ash.

NRG maintains that capping and sealing coal ash is a common form of remediation that is safe for both the public and the environment. The company has submitted plans to the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency and is currently awaiting approval.

“Midwest Generation has submitted a detailed proposal, rooted in science, and puts community safety first,” Dave Schrader, a senior manager for communications at NRG, said in a statement. “We are confident the IEPA will conduct a thorough review of all information we submitted, as required under the law, and make an informed decision based on the science, data, and factual evidence.”

Schrader added that the cap NRG plans to install is expected to last more than 100 years.

State legislation that would have required the removal of any ash residuals near the lake’s shorelines stalled in the House earlier this year, but environmental advocates say they are not giving up.

State Rep. Rita Mayfield, a Waukegan Democrat who sponsored the legislation, said she still has hope for the bill’s revival during the General Assembly’s veto session in November. Mayfield said if the bill doesn’t pull through in the fall, she’ll reintroduce similar legislation next year.

“We are not legislating for today. We are legislating for tomorrow,” she said. “We simply cannot wait for our water to be contaminated.”

Community concerns of Lake Michigan contamination from the plant heightened this month after an environmental study identified the facility as a potential flood risk.

The report, released by Chicago’s Environmental Law and Policy Center, cited rising lake levels due to climate change. Scientists say predicting lake levels is difficult, but climate change could cause more dramatic changes to Lake Michigan’s water level over time.

U.S. Rep. Brad Schneider on Monday said global warming is one of the most “urgent existential issues” that governments must address today.

“Success depends on everyone recognizing we are in the same boat, and that everyone, all of us, must row in the same direction,” said Schneider, a Highland Park Democrat. “We have our local, state and federal governments working together to protect our community. Now we need NRG to protect the community that has worked for them for so long. We need NRG to remove the toxins.”

Coal ash contains contaminants like arsenic, cadmium and mercury, which without proper management can pollute waterways, groundwater, drinking water and the air, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

In 2019, the Illinois Pollution Control Board found NRG responsible for violating environmental regulations and contaminating the groundwater of four communities in Illinois — including Waukegan. The decision came after several environmental groups filed a complaint in 2012, including the Environmental Law and Policy Center, Sierra Club, Prairie Rivers Network and Citizens Against Ruining the Environment.

While the board has found the company liable for causing or allowing coal ash to leak into Waukegan groundwater, it is currently in the remedy phase of its decision. The case’s next hearing is expected to take place near the end of September.

The coal plant is one part of a cluster of industrial facilities in Waukegan. Though NRG’s plant is not a Superfund site, the city is home to five of Illinois’ 11 Superfund sites — contaminated or hazardous sites managed by the U.S. EPA.

“There is a tremendous amount of toxic pollution that our predominantly low-income residents are exposed to. … It’s devastating for our community,” said Dulce Ortiz, a co-chair of Clean Power Lake County and executive director of Mano a Mano Family Resource Center. “Waukegan has dreamed for generations, and still dreams of revitalizing our lakefront.”

Waukegan is one of the most diverse cities in the Chicago area, with more than half its residents identifying as Hispanic or Latino.