New report finds coal ash is heavily polluting nearby Illinois groundwater

The contaminants pose a major threat to vulnerable communities.

A barge loaded with Illinois Basin coal sits in the Ohio River on April 3, 2017 at Cairo, Illinois. CREDIT: Scott Olson/Getty Images
A barge loaded with Illinois Basin coal sits in the Ohio River on April 3, 2017 at Cairo, Illinois. CREDIT: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Widespread, deadly contaminants are rampant in groundwater near coal ash dumping sites in Illinois, according to an in-depth new report published Wednesday.

The report, authored by the Environmental Integrity Project, Earthjustice, Prairie Rivers Network, and the Sierra Club, found that groundwater near 90 percent of reporting Illinois coal ash sites contain toxic pollutants like arsenic, cobalt, and lithium. That number accounts for 22 of 24 total dumping sites with available data.

Coal ash, the byproduct of burning coal, consists of carcinogens, neurotoxins, and poisons, a toxic mix that threatens human health and wildlife alike. When coal ash becomes wet, contaminants seep into the water, with severe implications for surrounding ecosystems.

The report compares the metals found in Illinois groundwater near the coal ash sites to federal health standards including Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) safe drinking water standards. Certain areas yielded levels hundreds of times higher; in others, levels were thousands of times higher.


“There are more than two dozen coal ash dumpsites spread across Illinois that contain over 80 individual ash ponds and landfills,” an overview of the report released Wednesday notes. “Almost all of these ash dumps sit right next to rivers and lakes, separated from them only by thin earthen embankments. They are disproportionately located in communities with limited resources but pose a threat that extends far and wide.”

Not all of the sites highlighted in the report are near populated areas and it is unclear how many private wells utilized by people for water are near such sites. But some areas are and do, including Illinois’ fourth-largest city, Joliet, which is southwest of Chicago.

During a press briefing on Wednesday, elected officials and locals from coal ash-impacted communities appeared alongside organizations supporting the report in Springfield to announce the findings and call on the state to take action.

“Illinois has the second-highest number of coal ash disposal sites in the nation,” said Scott Bennett, a state senator representing the state’s 52nd district, which suffers from coal ash impacts. Speaking to the “growing coal ash crisis in Illinois,” Bennett called for swift measures to safeguard residents.

“We need permanent protections from coal ash pollution to keep our waters and our communities safe,” he said.

Jenny Cassel, an attorney with Earthjustice, noted that “there are leaking, unlined coal ash dumps all around Illinois,” the majority of which are perilously close to rivers and lakes.


That pollution can be incredibly damaging. Residents of impacted areas spoke to the effects of such contaminants on people. Coal ash exposure can cause major damage to the nervous system and exacerbate pre-existing health issues in addition to causing developmental problems in children. David Villalobos, the alderman for the 4th ward in Waukegan, also spoke to the outsized implications for communities of color and low-income residents in the state.

“Families in our communities are low-to-moderate income, who don’t always have access to quality health care nor preventative care,” Villalobos said. Waukegan, which is home to large Black and Latinx communities, “continues to face many environmental and health injustices.”

“We’ve had to endure legacy pollution from industry on the lakefront… [and a] long legacy of contamination,” he emphasized.

Speakers on Wednesday called for the state to take action and to look closer at the crisis. Illinois began regulating coal ash in 2013 but has largely abandoned the plans it started and critics argue that coal ash ponds in the state have been allowed to essentially operate with minimal supervision or accountability.

It’s unclear if coal ash sites in Illinois are violating regulations, despite the pollution. Three years ago, U.S. regulations required utilities to begin reporting and collecting data on groundwater near coal ash dumps, information that became publicly available in March 2018.


Under federal rules, if warning signs regarding coal ash pollution are found, companies must look for specific contaminants and then compare them to neighboring unaffected areas, with measurable differences requiring action from the company.

Green and watchdog groups have argued that’s not enough and that companies can test inaccurately, or use control sites that sit too close to the coal ash sites, meaning there won’t be a real notable difference between the two. On Wednesday, speakers lobbied for companies to be held accountable for pollution and for Illinois to prevent further dumping in the state.

Illinois isn’t the only state grappling with fallout from coal ash pollution. In Tennessee, workers sickened by the severe 2008 coal ash spill at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s coal-fired power plant in Kingston have sued, alleging that the contractor in charge of the cleanup put them in danger. More than 30 workers have died and some 250 are sick or dying from diseases linked to coal ash toxins.

Elsewhere, coal ash has become an issue in areas threatened by hurricanes. In North Carolina, Hurricane Florence released coal ash into the Cape Fear River earlier this year. Meanwhile, the Trump administration has sought to roll back groundwater protections at coal ash sites.