Closing of Waukegan coal plant causes controversy among residents

A power plant in Waukegan that operated for 100 years recently shuttered its coal-fired units.

The closing, part of a statewide push to promote renewable energy, was applauded by environmentalists and some residents in the north suburban community.

But concerns remain about the coal ash and plans by the corporate owner of the NRG Waukegan Generating Station to deal with the hazardous, leftover waste.

“We’ve been working to get a responsible retirement plan…for well over a decade,” says Waukegan Mayor Ann Taylor.

There are two ponds of ash, a byproduct of burning the coal, on the plant’s site, along the shores of Lake Michigan. One of those is still in service.

The ash contains cancer-causing toxins that some residents fear, not only pose serious health risks, but have the potential to pollute groundwater.

They are calling for the ash to be removed.

But NRG, parent company of Midwest Generation, the Waukegan facility’s operator, plans to cap and monitor the site instead.

“Capping and monitoring offer a number of benefits to the local community and environment,” the company said in a statement. “The closure process will be quicker and less impactful to the environment than closure by removal. The USEPA has determined closure in place can safely minimize and mitigate exposure to groundwater and other bodies of water such as the Great Lakes.”

It’s an issue that state regulators must monitor closely as Illinois plans for the closure of all its coal-fired energy plants by 2045. If all goes as planned, Illinois would be the first Midwest state to take that step.

“This is challenging because there is not a clear playbook for how this transition plan will go and there’s a lot of pitfalls along the way,” says Christine Nannicelli, a senior campaign representative with Sierra Club in Illinois.

NRG’s Full Statement:

“The East and West ash ponds were originally built in the 1970s. They were lined with a synthetic rubber material initially and relined with a high-density polyethylene liner (an impermeable plastic) in 2003 at the East Ash Pond, and in 2004 at the West Ash Pond. Today, the East Pond is the only one in service. It is the one proposed to be permanently sealed as part of an extensive review process by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency.

Our plan to cap the existing coal ash in place is sound. The plan is the result of exhaustive review and consultation with outside engineers and geologists who have studied our plants and other Illinois power plants. The recommended plans are based on analysis and modeling that makes protecting the community and the environment a priority. The cap includes installing what’s known as ClosureTurf®, a three-component system comprised of a structured geomembrane, engineered turf, and a specialized sand infill. The geomembrane is a thick plastic.

Based on ongoing research, the structured geomembrane and artificial turf components of the proposed ClosureTurf® cap are expected to last more than 400 years and more than 100 years, respectively, and are proven to withstand extreme weather events.

Capping and monitoring offer a number of benefits to the local community and environment. The closure process will be quicker and less impactful to the environment than closure by removal. The USEPA has determined closure in place can safely minimize and mitigate exposure to groundwater and other bodies of water such as the Great Lakes.

The facts are clear: our closure and cap-in-place is sound. We await the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency’s expert review and determination as we prepare for closure of the ponds and the decommissioning of the coal units.”

Chicago News