CAPITOL RECAP: Dems still mum on redistricting data during first map hearing

SPRINGFIELD – Illinois lawmakers opened their first public hearing Tuesday on a proposed set of new House and Senate district maps with Democrats and Republicans still at sharp odds over how the maps were drawn and whether or not they are fair.

House and Senate Democrats unveiled the proposed maps late Friday. They were reportedly drawn using population estimates from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey because official numbers from the 2020 census will not be available until August or September.

Allan Lichtman, a history professor at American University in Washington, D.C., who was hired as a consultant by the House and Senate Democratic caucuses, testified that in his opinion, ACS data is acceptable to use for redistricting because in the five years leading up to the 2010 census, those estimates for Illinois were off by only about 0.3 percent.

He also praised Illinois for legislative maps produced in the past that enabled Black and Hispanic communities to gain representation in the General Assembly that roughly mirrors their numbers in the state population as a whole.

But upon questioning from Senate Republican Leader Dan McConchie, of Hawthorn Woods, among others, Lichtman said he could not tell whether the proposed maps released over the weekend would accomplish the same thing because he had not seen the demographic data that was used to draw them.

Rep. Elizabeth Hernandez, D-Cicero, who chairs the House Redistricting Committee, said the maps before the committee were only a draft, but McConchie said the committee still needed to see the demographic numbers.

“How can we appropriately measure the draft without the numbers,” he asked.

Hernandez said those numbers would be forthcoming, but McConchie insisted lawmakers needed them before they could consider the proposed maps.

“We’re looking at shapes on a map,” he said. “That doesn’t give us the level of detail necessary … There’s no data.”

Other Republicans complained that the proposed maps still have not been put into bill form, which would provide legal descriptions of the boundaries of each district.

Hearings are scheduled to continue Wednesday and Thursday. Legislative Democrats are pressing to pass a new set of legislative maps before the General Assembly’s scheduled adjournment on Monday, May 31.

The proposed new maps establish new lines for the General Assembly’s 59 Senate districts and 118 House districts, an action the Illinois Constitution requires lawmakers to take at least once every 10 years following the decennial census.

Instead of waiting on census data which is delayed this year, Democrats have said they are relying on other data sources, including the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, which uses sampling to estimate population shifts on an ongoing basis.

REDISTRICTING SUPREME COURT:  Democrats in the Illinois General Assembly on Tuesday released a new proposed Illinois Supreme Court district map, redrawing district lines to maximize Democrats’ chances of keeping a majority on the state’s highest court.

Lines for the Illinois Supreme Court districts have not been redrawn since they were first established in 1963.

There are seven Supreme Court justices from five districts across the state, with three justices elected from Cook County, which spans the 1st District.

The new boundaries are drawn using the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey data because the pandemic has delayed the release of U.S. Census data until September.

Republicans in the General Assembly and several voting advocacy groups have spoken out against using the ACS data, which is less detailed than the U.S. Census data and uses sampling to estimate population changes.

The Supreme Court shares district lines with the state’s appellate courts. The proposed map will not impact the tenure of the current appellate and Supreme Court justices, according to the statement, and all justices running for retention can do so in their current districts. 

Shortly after the map was released, House and Senate Republicans criticized the map, claiming they had no input and that Democrats should wait for the Census data.

Sen. Jason Barickman, R-Bloomington, said he became aware of the new map when it was reported in the media on Tuesday afternoon.

The new map is more balanced in terms of creating smaller population disparities among the districts, said Kent Redfield, emeritus professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Springfield.

But, Redfield said, the new map is clearly designed from a partisan perspective.

“There is absolutely no question it is drawn for partisan purposes and reinforces the Democratic advantage for electing Supreme Court justices,” Redfield said.

MARIJUANA LICENSES: Legislation revamping the state’s system for awarding marijuana dispensary licenses passed the House on Tuesday, May 25.

Amendments to House Bill 1443, sponsored by Chicago Democratic Rep. La Shawn Ford, would create two new marijuana dispensary lotteries offering 55 licenses each while addressing lingering concerns regarding the original 75 licenses established in the 2019 law.

It passed the House in a 70-33 vote with bipartisan support, but also bipartisan opposition.

The 75 licenses initially set by the 2019 law were supposed to be granted by May 2020, but were sidelined by the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and legal challenges.

Originally, the process as intended would award licenses in order of applicant scores with tiebreaker lotteries for applicants who received the same score. However, after just 21 of more than 900 applicants received a perfect score to become eligible for the lottery, a hold was placed on the lottery system.

Under Ford’s legislation, the first new batch of 55 licenses would be offered through a “Qualifying Applicant Lottery” which would only be open to applicants who scored 85 percent or higher on submissions for the first 75 licenses.

This would provide a chance at dispensary licenses to firms who did not receive a perfect score and were excluded from the initial 75-license lottery, and firms who did qualify for the initial tiebreaker lottery but have not hit the 10-license cap for applicants.

The second new batch of 55 licenses would be offered through a “Social Equity Justice Involved Lottery.” Those eligible must have scored 85 percent or higher on their submission, and must also qualify as a social equity applicant. That means 51 percent of the firm’s ownership must be someone who has lived in an area impacted by the war on drugs for 10 years, have been arrested or convicted of a marijuana crime eligible for expungement, or be a member of a family impacted by the war on drugs.

Another lottery of five licenses for medical cannabis dispensaries would also be open to applicants who were eligible for the social equity or qualifying lotteries.

HIV DECRIMINALIZATION: The Illinois Senate on Tuesday passed measures decriminalizing the transmission of HIV and requiring public high schools to teach media literacy.

Both measures have already passed the House and will need only a signature from Gov. JB Pritzker to become law.

House Bill 1063 would eliminate existing criminal statutes that penalize HIV transmission as a Class 2 felony. If Pritzker signs the bill, Illinois would join 11 other states that do not have laws criminalizing the transmission of HIV, including Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.

HB 1063 also would repeal existing laws allowing law enforcement or state’s attorneys to access a person’s HIV status. Under current criminal law, a person who transmits HIV to another person can be charged with “criminal transmission of HIV.”

Current law prohibits the forced disclosure of a person’s HIV status but provides exceptions for law enforcement officials or state’s attorneys to subpoena or petition for the HIV status of criminal defendants.

Sen. Robert Peters, a Chicago Democrat, sponsored the bill in the Senate, and Rep. Carol Ammons, an Urbana Democrat, was lead sponsor in the House.

It passed out of the Senate by a vote of 37-17 on Tuesday, and passed from the House last month by a vote of 99-9. It will head to the governor for his signature.

TEACHING STANDARDS CHALLENGE: The leader of one of the state’s largest anti-abortion group told a legislative committee Tuesday, May 25, that the group intend to file a legal challenge against the state’s new “culturally responsive teaching and leading standards.”

Ralph Rivera, a lobbyist for Illinois Right to Life Action and the Pro-Family Alliance, told a House committee that 30 public school teachers have signed on to a future lawsuit that will challenge the constitutionality of those standards.

The standards, which the Illinois State Board of Education endorsed last year, call on schools of education to train prospective new teachers in how to make their instruction more inclusive and relevant to students from different cultural backgrounds as well as students of different sexual orientations and gender identities.

Opponents of the standards pointed to language calling on teachers and school leaders to approach their work “affirming the validity of students’ backgrounds and identities,” and that they should “assess how their biases and perceptions affect their teaching practice and how they access tools to mitigate their own behavior (racism, sexism, homophobia, unearned privilege, Eurocentrism, etc.).”

Schools of education won’t begin implementing those new standards until 2025. But the issue came up Tuesday during discussion of a bill dealing with mentoring programs for new teachers and principals.

Senate Bill 814 would make a number of changes and updates to those programs, including a requirement that the content of those programs align with the Culturally Responsive Teaching and Learning Standards. If enacted into law, that bill would take effect immediately.

Rivera said he had no problems with the underlying mentoring programs or any other part of the bill. He said his only opposition was to the provisions requiring those programs be aligned with the new teaching and leadership standards.

He also said it wasn’t his group’s intent to proceed with the lawsuit until those standards go into effect in 2025.

MEDIA LITERACY: The Senate on Tuesday, May 25, joined the House in passing House Bill 234, which would require public high schools in the state to offer instruction in how to understand and evaluate news and social media as part of their computer literacy courses.

Sen. Karina Villa, D-West Chicago, sponsored the bill in the Senate.

The requirement would begin in the 2022-2023 school year and would include instruction on accessing information across various platforms; analyzing and evaluating media messages; creating their own media messages; and social responsibility and civics.

There was no debate on the measure Tuesday as it passed 42-15. It passed the House on April 20 on a 68-44 vote.

MENSTRUAL HYGIENE BILLS: The Illinois Senate passed two bills Tuesday, May 25, that would bring awareness to period poverty by advising state universities and colleges, as well as homeless shelters, to provide menstrual hygiene products in their bathrooms at no cost to users.

Both bill sponsors cited period poverty, or the issue of not being able to afford products such as pads, tampons or liners to manage menstrual bleeding, as motivation for their legislation.

Sen. Christopher Belt, D-Swansea, is the Senate sponsor of House Bill 310, which would require all shelters that provide temporary housing assistance to women and youth to make available products such as sanitary napkins, tampons and panty liners.

HB 310 does not include enforcement or penalties to homeless shelters that do not provide the menstrual hygiene products because the obligation of the requirement is subject to the availability of funds in the shelter’s general budget.

The bill passed out of the Senate on a 56-1 vote and will await a signature from the governor to become law.

A measure requiring universities and colleges to provide the same products as those in the homeless shelter bill received some debate on the Senate floor over cost.

House Bill 641, sponsored by Sen. Karina Villa, D-West Chicago, requires public universities and community colleges to make menstrual hygiene products available free of charge in restrooms of any buildings owned or leased by the higher education institutions.

HB 641 would require the governing board of each public university and community college district in the state to decide funding to meet the bills requirement for free menstrual hygiene products in their facilities.

The bill passed the Senate on a 42-13 vote, and it will head back to the House for a concurrence vote on a minor amendment before it can head to the governor.

PRISONER REVIEW BOARD: Republican senators on Monday, May 24,  raised concerns about four Prisoner Review Board members who have continued to serve for almost two years despite not being confirmed by the Senate Executive Appointments Committee, a constitutional requirement in the state.

In a news conference in Springfield, Republican Sen. Steve McClure, of Springfield, said Gov. JB Pritzker, who initially appointed the members in 2019, is using “shady practices” in allowing the appointees to serve unconfirmed, keeping the Senate from fulfilling “one of its essential obligations.”

McClure was joined at the conference by fellow Republican members of the Senate Executive Appointments Committee, Sen. Jason Plummer, of Edwardsville, and Sen. Terri Bryant, of Murphysboro.

The PRB, an independent 15-person body appointed by the governor, imposes release conditions for incarcerated individuals being released from prison.

The board has the authority to grant, deny or determine conditions of parole and notify victims and families when an inmate is going to be released from custody. The board also makes recommendations for clemency petitions to the governor.

The appointees in question include Aurthur Mae Perkins, Joseph Ruggiero, Oreal James and Eleanor Wilson. All four were appointed members of the Prisoner Review Board by Pritzker in March and April of 2019, but were never confirmed by the Senate.

Pritzker’s press secretary Jordan Abudayyeh said the Republicans were “grandstanding” by calling the news conference. 

“For the Prisoner Review Board to be able to undertake its difficult and complex mission, members must be able to make parole determinations entirely independently,” she said in an email statement. “Subjecting members to political grandstanding sets a new and dangerous precedent for this constitutional function.”

“The members’ appointments and votes are transparent, and their meetings are open to the public. Additionally, the Senate Executive Appointments Committee sets the schedule for confirming gubernatorial appointees, and it is routine practice for appointees to be withdrawn so that the Senate has more time to consider the appointments,” she added.

McClure said Pritzker is “skirting a constitutional requirement” and he said he believes the Executive Appointments Committee is allowing it to happen.

FED REPAYMENT: Gov. JB Pritzker and other Democratic leaders announced Thursday, May 20, that they have agreed to a plan to repay the money Illinois borrowed from the Federal Reserve during the COVID-19 pandemic before the end of the next fiscal year.

Illinois borrowed $3.2 billion from the Fed through a program that Congress established under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security, or CARES Act to help states that saw dramatic declines in revenue during the peak of the pandemic. Of that, roughly $2 billion remains outstanding.

That money was to be repaid in three installments by December 2023. But in a news release, Pritzker said the state’s recent economic performance and stronger-than-expected revenue growth will allow it to pay off the loan early, saving the state about $100 million in interest charges.

But even without the debt repayment cost, Illinois faces a number of significant fiscal challenges over the next year.

During a news conference earlier in the day, House Majority Leader Greg Harris, D-Chicago, said the proposed budget as it stands now is about $1.3 billion out of balance and that lawmakers are faced with a choice of spending cuts, revenue enhancements or a combination of both in order to get through the year.

Last week, the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget revised its revenue estimates for the current fiscal year upwards by nearly $1.5 billion and by $842 million for the upcoming fiscal year.

Pritzker attributed that improved performance to state programs during the pandemic that targeted sectors of the economy such as small businesses and child care providers, as well as effective cash management by Comptroller Susana Mendoza.

The statement from the governor’s office noted that final income tax payments received earlier this week, along with stronger year-to-date receipts in the state’s main revenue sources – individual and corporate income taxes and sales taxes – will allow the remainder of the repayment to occur beginning in the next several months. 

Earlier, officials had hoped to use a portion of the $8.1 billion in fiscal relief Illinois will receive through the recently-passed American Rescue Plan to pay off the loans, but the Treasury Department has issued interim rules that prohibit the use of those funds to pay off state debt.

UNIONIZATION AMENDMENT: The Illinois Senate on Friday, May 21, passed and sent to the House a proposed constitutional amendment that would establish a fundamental right of employees to unionize and engage in collective bargaining.

Sen. Ram Villivalam, D-Chicago, lead sponsor of the measure in the Senate, said the amendment is a response to the relatively stagnant wages most workers have seen since the 1970s when union membership nationally began to decline.

The proposed amendment would add a section to the Illinois Constitution’s Bill of Rights stating, “Employees shall have the fundamental right to organize and to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing for the purpose of negotiating wages, hours, and working conditions, and to protect their economic welfare and safety at work.”

It would go on to say that no laws could be passed that diminish workers’ rights to organize, including any state law or local ordinance “that prohibits the execution or application of agreements between employers and labor organizations that represent employees requiring membership in an organization as a condition of employment.”

That is a reference to so-called “right-to-work” laws that began proliferating in the post-World War II era that prohibit any agreements requiring union membership as a condition of employment.

During discussion on the measure Friday, Villivalam said it would have minimal impact on private-sector workers because the National Labor Relations Act governs organizing and collective bargaining in the private sector. He said the intent was to protect the right to collective bargaining that is already established under the Illinois Public Labor Relations Act and the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act.

The measure – Senate Joint Resolution Constitutional Amendment 11 – passed the Senate by a vote of 49-7, with 11 Republicans joining Democrats in supporting it. It now goes to the House where it will need a three-fifths majority, or 71 votes, to pass. If it does, it would then be up to Illinois voters to approve during the November 2022 general election.

TILLMAN OPINION: The Illinois Supreme Court threw out a lawsuit Thursday, May 20, that was brought by the head of a libertarian think-tank that challenged the state’s use of bonds to pay back state debt.

The decision marks the end of the legal battle initiated by Illinois Policy Institute Chairman and CEO John Tillman against the state’s use of more than $14 million in bonds to repay pension obligations and other state debt.

Tillman claimed the state laws in 2003 and 2017 authorizing the bonds were unconstitutional because the bonds were not issued for “specific purposes,” within the meaning of the state constitution.

The Illinois Constitution’s revenue article contains a section that provides the state can incur debt for “specific purposes.” Tillman argued that, within the meaning of this constitutional provision, “specific purposes” refers exclusively to projects dealing with capital improvements, such as roads, buildings, and bridges.

He asked the court to declare the bonds invalid and block the state from making any future payments on them.

The court ruled unanimously that Tillman could not bring this case because of his delay in filing his 2019 lawsuit, years after the 2003 and 2017 laws issuing the bonds were passed.

The justices also decided that it is “patently obvious that the State will suffer some prejudice if relief is granted at this extremely late stage.”

In a written statement, Tillman said he is disappointed in the Illinois Supreme Court’s ruling and is evaluating his options as to how to proceed from here.

A spokesperson for Pritzker said in a statement that the governor’s administration is pleased with court’s decision that ends Tillman’s “frivolous” lawsuit.

MENSTRUAL PRODUCTS IN SCHOOLS: A bill that would require schools to provide free menstrual hygiene products in all bathrooms for grades 4 through 12 passed the Illinois House and will now be up for consideration in the Senate.

House Bill 156, sponsored by Rep. Barbara Hernandez, D-Aurora, passed on a 68-43 vote Thursday, May 20.

Hernandez said in some cases that there are students who are missing school because they are unable to access menstrual hygiene products or don’t feel comfortable going to a nurse’s office or asking a teacher for a pad or a tampon.

The menstrual hygiene products would be free to the students and be available during the regular school day.

A similar bill, House Bill 3215, was signed into law in 2017. But Hernandez said her bill is necessary because school districts are not enforcing the existing law.

The fiscal note for the 2017 bill stated that this measure would not have a financial impact on the Illinois State Board of Education, but it would instead have a fiscal impact on school districts. The specific amount was not known at the time.

Rep. Avery Bourne, R-Morrisonville, said school districts are already doing this and the bill “takes away local control” and is “a blanket mandate that will not only be expensive, but reach beyond what the amendment even intends to do.”

Rep. Andrew Chesney, R-Freeport, said he was mostly concerned about the language requiring the products to be available in all bathrooms, which would include male bathrooms.

Hernandez said this is necessary so that male friends can help out their classmates in emergency situations. Rep. Kathleen Willis, D-Addison, added that this is also a more inclusive approach to protect transgender youth.

MARIJUANA LICENSING:  A bill aimed at allowing more people from distressed communities to get into the lucrative recreational marijuana business is on its way to the House floor as lawmakers head into the final days of the spring 2021 session.

House Bill 1443 is a follow-up to the landmark bill that passed in 2019 legalizing and regulating the sale and use of recreational marijuana. Under that law, dispensaries that were already licensed to sell medical marijuana immediately became eligible to apply for recreational-use licenses while a number of other licenses were set aside for so-called “social equity” applicants.

Those were to be businesses run by people from communities that were disproportionately affected by over-policing and criminal drug prosecutions during the “war on drugs,” as well as individuals and family members of people who had previously been prosecuted for marijuana violations.

The first 75 social equity licenses were supposed to go out last year through a lottery system, but that was put on hold when, out of more than 900 applications filed, only 21 received perfect scores making them eligible to enter the lottery.

Since then, the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation has given those who didn’t make the cut a chance to amend their applications, and it plans to go through a second scoring process before determining which ones will qualify for the lottery.

The proposal calls for establishing two more lotteries in which a total of 110 dispensary licenses will be available.

One of those would be for applicants who received a score of 85 percent or better on their initial application and did not receive a license in the initial lottery; the other would be specifically for applicants with similar scores who have personally been convicted of a marijuana offense or has a family member with such a conviction.

The bill passed out of the House Executive Committee by a vote of 15-0 on Thursday, May 20. It now heads to the full House for consideration.

AUDITOR GENERAL CAMPAIGN VIOLATIONS: The campaign committee of former state Rep. Frank Mautino, who is now the Illinois auditor general, violated state law when it spent campaign funds on gas and car repairs for personal vehicles, the Illinois Supreme Court decided Thursday, May 20.

But the court did not find Mautino’s committee violated a separate section of state election law that prohibits spending more than fair market value for goods and services.

However, since Mautino’s committee was dissolved in 2015, any fines levied against it would likely not be collected, a spokesperson for the Illinois State Board of Elections said Thursday.

The case against Mautino’s campaign committee dates back to early 2016 when Mautino resigned from his position as a state representative, after 25 years in the General Assembly, and was appointed auditor general.

ROAD IMPROVEMENT PLAN: Gov. JB Pritzker announced Wednesday, May 19, the release of a six-year, $20.7 billion construction plan to improve roads and bridges throughout the state, an annual process which the Illinois Department of Transportation oversees to target infrastructure spending.

The Highway Improvement Program, funded through the Rebuild Illinois capital infrastructure plan passed in 2019, will reconstruct nearly 2,779 miles more miles of roads and 7.9 million square feet of bridge deck between fiscal year 2022 and 2027, according to the governor’s office.

The Highway Improvement Program is a part of the larger $45 billion Rebuild Illinois infrastructure plan, which was a bipartisan effort to revitalize local economies that passed in the governor’s first year. The plan invests in roads, bridges, railroads, universities, early childhood centers and state facilities.

The projects outlined in the new multi-year plan will continue to create and support hundreds of thousands of jobs, Pritzker said.

Overall, the Rebuild Illinois capital plan is expected to support around 540,000 thousand jobs over its lifespan. But there are currently no estimates available on how many jobs the specific projects through the Highway Improvement Program will create.

About $33.2 billion was earmarked in the initial release of the capital plan for the transportation sector, with $25.3 billion specifically for roads and bridges. Most of that funding came from an increase to the state’s motor fuel tax, which was indexed for inflation each year, and increases to state licensing fees.

The Illinois Department of Transportation said the plan includes $5.79 billion for highway reconstruction and preservation, $4.82 billion for bridge improvements, $2.59 billion for strategic expansion, $1.43 billion for system support such as engineering and land acquisition, and $1.21 billion for safety and system modernizations.

IN-PERSON LEARNING: The Illinois State Board of Education unanimously passed a resolution Wednesday, May 19, calling on all public schools to return to in-person learning during the upcoming school year.

The resolution doesn’t institute any mandates or requirements for Illinois schools to follow, but shows unified support from ISBE for an upcoming decision by State Superintendent Carmen Ayala.

In a weekly blog posted to the ISBE website, Ayala said she plans to make the mandate official “at the conclusion of the current academic year,” meaning the change will not take effect until next school year.

Once Ayala issues an official declaration, all public schools will be required to return to in-person learning for the 2021-2022 academic year with no exceptions. Only students who are both unvaccinated and under a quarantine order from the Illinois Department of Health will be eligible to continue remote learning.

A spokeswoman for ISBE said they expect the bulk of the population eligible for remote learning at the start of the school year to be under 12 years old.

“We encourage families to use the summer months to ensure that eligible children get vaccinated,” she said. “The vaccines are safe, effective, and proven to protect you from getting sick.”

Students who do not qualify for remote learning may seek home or hospital instruction if a doctor determines they will miss at least 10 days of school due to a medical condition.

STATUE TASK FORCE: A state House task force continued its discussion on Wednesday, May 19, about reevaluating controversial statues and whether new monuments commemorating minorities should be added to the state Capitol grounds.

The hearing Wednesday is the second meeting of the bipartisan Statue and Monument Review Task Force, which was formed by Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch last month. The purpose of the task force is to conduct a review of monuments on state property and proposals for new monuments or statues.

Adam Green, an associate history professor at the University of Chicago, said statues, monuments and memorials and the naming practices for buildings, parks, streets and other components of the built environment play a crucial role in defining communities.

Katherine Poole-Jones, associate art history professor at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, said the task force must ask what values they wish to collectively endorse in the public realm.

She said this is especially crucial to think about when discussing the grounds of government buildings, “because, of course, the history of Confederate monuments was putting them up at statehouses as tools of intimidation.”

Last year, former House Speaker Michael Madigan requested that the board of the Office of the Architect of the Capitol remove monuments of Stephen Douglas and Pierre Menard from Capitol grounds.

Rep. Mary Flowers, a Chicago Democrat who chairs the committee, suggested the task force consider adding monuments commemorating former President Barack Obama, as well as Harold Washington, Chicago’s first black mayor; Ida B. Wells, a co-founder of the NAACP; and Rudy Lozano, a labor activist from Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood.

But Rachel Leibowitz, an assistant professor at the State University of New York, cautioned the task force against adding too many new figurative monuments and memorials to the Capitol grounds.

She also raised the possibility of constructing abstract memorials, such as the Vietnam Memorial in the Washington, D.C.

COAL ASH RULES: After years of work by environmental activists to push action on the issue, the Illinois Pollution Control Board has issued findings and recommendations related to the regulation of coal ash storage – an action advocates call “the first of its kind” in the state.  

The material, also referred to as coal combustion residual, or CCR, is typically kept in storage ponds located on the grounds near coal-burning power plants, known as surface impoundments.

The impoundments typically contain high amounts of hazardous material, including mercury, cadmium and arsenic, which can pollute and contaminate surrounding bodies of water and drinking water supplies.

While some disposal site operators have taken proper steps to mitigate pollution from the storage ponds, the sites have remained largely unregulated until recently, in some cases lying totally exposed to the elements.

In accordance with the state’s 2019 Coal Ash Pollution Prevention Act, the Pollution Control Board issued new rules and findings on April 15, finalizing the rules by which coal plant owners and operators must abide.

According to a statement issued by the Illinois EPA, the rules “provide for the protection of public health and the environment.”

The rules require coal ash disposal site owners or operators to move coal ash to landfills or disposal sites with protective lining and groundwater monitoring systems. Owners and operators are responsible for the full cost of transporting all material or retrofitting coal ash disposal sites to come into compliance.

Under the 2019 law, owners or operators of coal ash surface impoundments were required to pay initial fees of $50,000 for each closed coal ash plant and $75,000 for those that have not yet been closed. The bill also requires fees of $25,000 annually for each site that has not completed closure, and $15,000 for each closed site which has not completed adequate post-closure care. Those fees go to the state’s environmental protection and inspection fund.

Additionally, all coal ash storage sites not owned by a municipality are responsible for providing financial assurance in the form of bonds, a trust fund, or letter of credit ensuring the remediation can be paid for in the event the responsible company runs out of funds or abandons the site. 

Under the new rules, a pair of permit processes are established by IEPA to guide proper storage and cleanup efforts.

An operating permit would pertain to active coal ash disposal sites and would require companies to meet obligations for maintenance, dust control and pollution mitigation. A closure construction permit would be issued to coal ash sites which choose to close or that are forced to close due to a violation. 

The rules also require the owners or operators of the site to publicly post all permits and documents related to projects and allow for public review and feedback on the storage or cleanup process.

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government and distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.

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May 25, 2021 at 09:25PM

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