When Dulce Ortiz wants to enjoy the beauty of Lake Michigan, stroll through green space, or see and touch the water, she has to leave her neighborhood, even though the second largest of the Great Lakes is right in her backyard.
Ortiz lives in Waukegan, Illinois, a suburb about an hour north of Chicago that has a grim history of toxic waste. With a population of just 88,000, the city has five Superfund sitesmany of which are found along the shores of Lake Michigan.
And that’s not counting the vast pools of toxic materials left over from decades of coal burning in Waukegan. Deep pits of dangerous sludge lie along the shores of Lake Michigan, the watershed of about 12 million people.
Ortiz, co-chair of the local environmental justice organization Clean Power Lake Countycalls these coal waste sites a “ticking time bomb” vulnerable to future spills, with the potential to harm millions of people.
The Waukegan coal-fired power plant, which closed last year, is just over a mile from an elementary school, public park and single-family housing interspersed with local taquerias and bakeries. The city is predominantly Latino according to the US Census data.
Now, a permanent solution to coal industry debris may soon be a reality.
When coal is burned as fuel, it produces a waste product called coal ash. This burnt by-product is stored in large man-made landfills commonly known as ponds or pits. The material is toxic and contains at least 17 heavy metals and radioactive materialssuch as mercury, cadmium and arsenic, which cause cancer and birth defects, as well as heart and lung disease.
In May, the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, propose new regulations to close a loophole that allowed historic coal ash ponds to go unattended for years. The new ruling would require energy companies and other owners of coal ash ponds to clean up inactive sites.
Coal ash has an infamous toxic history. The 2008 Kingston, Tennessee coal ash spill – where over 5 million cubic meters was spilled in the surrounding waterways and caused the death of cleaners years after the event – is considered one of the country’s worst industrial disasters.
Coal ash regulation at the federal level is fairly recent. In 2015, the EPA released the first national minimum standards for new and operating coal ash ponds, leaving out hundreds of legacy sites that have not received coal ash since before 2015.
The EPA’s recently announced rule change follows a dispute with the environmental justice nonprofit landjustice. Lisa Evans, a senior attorney there, told Grist the proposed new ruling goes a long way to preventing future disasters, calling current regulations on former coal ash ponds “irrational, dangerous and reckless.”
“The EPA made a lot of compromises in the 2015 rule and came out with the weakest rule they could have created,” Evans said.
Coal ash ponds are notorious for leaks in surrounding water bodies and soil. According to a report last year, around 90% of coal-fired power plants have polluted the surrounding groundwater.
That same report also found that about 70% of decommissioned power plants with coal ash ponds are in low-income communities or predominantly non-white census tracts.
Ortiz said that in addition to fearing toxic materials are slowly seeping into Lake Michigan, she fears climate change is accelerating the risk of future disasters.
In a report released last year, the Midwestern environmental nonprofit Center for Environmental Law and Policy found that Lake Michigan has 12 toxic waste sites that are particularly at risk of spreading and harming nearby communities, thanks to lake erosion and increased storms fueled by climate change.
Waukegan has been identified as one of the sites, alongside other coal ash basins in Indiana and Wisconsin.
“The longer we leave (the coal ash pools) there unresolved, something catastrophic is going to happen,” Ortiz said.
The Waukegan Generating Station no longer operates its coal-fired plants, but its waste remains. Midwest Generation, a subsidiary of national energy company NRG Energy, owns the power station.
Two coal ash ponds at the plant are being cleaned. According to Midwest Generation, a pond will be plugged and covered, a process where the pond is filled with soil and sediment and covered with plastic, and remains in place. The other pond will have its materials excavated and moved to an authorized landfill site.
Both ponds are currently regulated by the EPA and the cleanup process is on hold as the company awaits state approval.
A third site at the Waukegan plant is a historic coal ash waste site that has not received coal ash since 1977, according to Midwest Generation. This would classify the site as a former coal ash site and its cleanup would likely be regulated under the new EPA proposal.
In a statement, Midwest Generation said it is still reviewing the EPA’s proposal and will “continue to commit to compliance with applicable laws and comply with all final rules relating to legacy ash (coal) areas.” “
Coal ash loophole closure
Dismantling coal-fired electricity is part of an overall Illinois initiative to phase out coal by 2045. Illinois has been the first state in the Midwest legislate the phasing out of coal-fired power plants and focus on renewable energy and environmental justice with the Climate and Fair Jobs Act 2021.
Along with proper environmental cleanup and regulation, Ortiz said the issue of environmental justice is critical to Waukegan’s future.
The still standing coal plant in Waukegan is a “symbol of pain and suffering” for Ortiz. She said it’s a reminder that Waukegan residents, especially black and Latinos, have been sacrificed in the name of industry profit.
She said by visiting other affluent, predominantly white suburbs in the area, communities along Lake Michigan make full use of natural resources and are not exposed to the dangers of legacy coal pollution.
“Why can’t we have that too?” Why can’t our children have an easily accessible lakeside? Ortiz said.
Coal may not be synonymous with the Midwest, but the area is full of coal ash ponds.
According to data from Earthjustice, Indiana, Illinois and Ohio are among the top five states with regulated and unregulated coal ash pools. Additionally, there are 88 coal ash dump sites within two miles of at least one of the Great Lakes, the source of water for about 30 million people.
Following the curve of Lake Michigan, a town in northwest Indiana echoes Waukegan’s past, and residents hope new regulations could chart a future without polluting their backyard industries.
Michigan City, Indiana is located about 100 miles from Waukegan and is home to 32,000 residents, one-third of whom are black.
Ashley Williams is the executive director of Just Transition Northwest Indianaa Michigan City-based nonprofit environmental justice organization.
She said the contamination is a “silent crisis” with an estimated 2 million tons of toxic coal ash lying near Lake Michigan. The Michigan City coal-fired power plant sits in the shadow of nearby playgrounds, homes, and public beaches.
The Michigan City plant, owned by the Northern Indiana Public Service Company, or NIPSCO, is still in operation. The coal-fired plant has five ash ponds which are regulated by the federal decisions in force.
Like Waukegan, the NIPSCO site includes a currently unregulated man-made coal ash fill, which contains sediment, sand and coal ash, and is used to shield the coal-fired plant from the waters of Lake Michigan.
The infrastructure that prevents this material from flowing into Lake Michigan is aging and at risk of a “catastrophic release”, according to a engineering study authorized by Earthjustice.
According Energy Information Network, the dyke site contains approximately two million cubic yards of coal ash and pond areas go up to 40 feet deep into the ground. A NIPSCO spokesperson disputed the estimated amount of coal ash at the historic site, which the news site said is based on NIPSCO documents. In a statement to Grist, NIPSCO said there are approximately 109,000 tonnes of coal remaining outside the ponds.
This dike location would likely be regulated under the new EPA proposal.
In a statement, NIPSCO said it “will continue to monitor the progress of EPA’s latest regulatory proposal relating to coal ash management and how it may apply to the work we are already doing to comply. current regulations”.
Williams said the region’s industrial pollution history is buried everywhere.
The nearby town of Pines, Michigan has been in a longtime cleanup and legal battle dating back to the 1970s. For decades, NIPSCO dumped waste coal ash in the city landfill, used it to build roads, and gave it to residents to fill their yards and homes.
“It’s been a long road to get here,” she said.
NIPSCO coal plant to close from 2026. Williams said she wanted to make sure the site was not developed and turned into another site of environmental injustice.
She said Just Transition Northwest Indiana is advocating for a statewide change in energy production and wants young and current workers in the industry to be at the forefront of planning for the transition. future of the region.
“We are trying to reclaim our power from the polluters,” she said. “What’s happening in Michigan City is the beginning of what a just national transition could be.”