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Environmental Groups Sue to Protect Scenic River

The Dynegy Energy power plant above the Middle Fork of the Vermillion River operated from the 1950s to 2011. (prairierivers.org)
The Dynegy Energy power plant above the Middle Fork of the Vermillion River operated from the 1950s to 2011. (prairierivers.org)
February 1, 2018

OAKWOOD, Ill. — Illinois is home to only one National Scenic River: the Middle Fork of the Vermillion River. And environmental groups say it's being threatened by toxic coal ash waste that's seeping from a shuttered power plant owned by Dynegy.

Earthjustice and Prairie Rivers said they have filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue Dynegy, which closed the power plant in 2011. Andrew Rehn, water resources engineer at Prairie Rivers, said after decades of producing coal there, three pits filled with ash that contain contaminants are leaking from unlined ponds.

"The ground water is free to mix with the ash. And in this case the water in the coal-ash empondments is flowing through the berm along the banks of the river,” Rehn said. “And when you're canoeing the river and you look out at the riverbank, there's stained orange and purple and this sort of shimmering color."

David Byford with Dynegy said they are working with state and federal regulatory agencies to provide long-term protection of the storage areas, adding they finished a 485-foot riverbank stabilization in 2016. He said it has been successful in both restoring the riverbank and providing long-term protection against future erosion.

Prairie Rivers said tests they have done, as well as those done by Dynegy, have shown that seepage from the ash pits into the river contains toxic heavy metals. Rehn said that's threatening human health and wildlife. He added that stretch of river is unique in the state, and those who enjoy its beauty don't want it spoiled.

"When you're in the river, it feels like you're totally back in nature. You can't see anything from the riverbanks,” he said. “The one exception along that 17-mile corridor is the Dynegy Vermillion Power Plant that sits on the bluff above the Middle Fork."

In 1989, 17 miles of the Middle Fork were designated as a National Scenic River under the federal National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

Veronica Carter, Public News Service - IL