Extreme flooding across the globe and Greenland glaciers melting were two of the climate-related disasters we witnessed last month. More are on the way, climatologists say, which poses dangers for communities with hazardous waste dumps.
Like Waukegan’s ash pits alongside Lake Michigan, and the spent nuclear rods now buried in Zion close to the Big Lake by ComEd’s old nuke plant. These are ecological catastrophes waiting to happen, according to environmental advocates.
Late last month, a coalition of environmental groups sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over its refusal to regulate coal ash dumps, like the two hugging Waukegan’s lakeshore. Clean Power Lake County is one of the plaintiffs in the federal suit, along with organizations in Indiana, California and Tennessee, and the national Sierra Club.
The lawsuit alleges that almost 300 sites littered with toxic byproducts from decades of producing electricity at fossil-fueled power plants exist across the country, many in the Great Lakes region. Buried coal ash, which includes deadly arsenic and lithium, is putting water supplies at risk, the suit alleges.
The federal EPA first began regulating coal ash disposal in 2015 after a six-story earthen dam outside a Tennessee Valley Authority power plant collapsed in 2008. At that time, the EPA created special rules for getting rid of coal ash, including location restrictions, liner requirements to prevent groundwater contamination and groundwater monitoring devices to detect leaks.
The 2015 rule doesn’t cover coal-ash ponds closed before then, like in Waukegan. City officials and residents have made it abundantly clear they want the tons of the coal-ash from the legacy pits carted off site and buried.
The city has enlisted the aid of area lawmakers to have the dregs of another reminder of Waukegan’s industrial past dug up and taken to a landfill. Full of tarry leftovers, city officials worry Waukegan will be left with another future Superfund site down the road.
Like the PCBs in Waukegan Harbor, those chemicals left from the manufacturing process at the since-shuttered Outboard Marine operation. Or the barren Johns-Manville lakefront site on the city’s far North Side, where asbestos is buried.
NRG Inc., current owners of the old lakefront ComEd coal-fired generating station, have proposed to only line and cover the two ash retention ponds, and to monitor groundwater, which has shown some oozing from the pits. In the 2015 rules, the EPA exempted landfills that stopped receiving new waste before the regulations went into effect.
The Illinois Pollution Control Board said in 2019 groundwater contamination was occurring on the power plant site. The aging facility is out of commission as Illinois moves to reduce its carbon-generated energy footprint.
“Before there were any regulations whatsoever for this stuff, they just kind of dumped it anywhere,” said Jenny Cassel, an attorney at Earthjustice, a San Francisco environmental law group, told Energy News Network after the suit was filed. “Near the coal plants, particularly next to the rivers, they would just find depressions in the ground or dig them and throw coal ash in.”
It doesn’t take rocket science to figure lethal coal ash left stored some 300 yards from the Lake Michigan shoreline poses risks to the potable water of millions in the Chicago region. The same could be said of the nuclear rods from the dismantled Zion facility which closed in 1998.
Not only can the heavy metals seep into the lake, but powerful storms fueling beach erosion and flooding from high-wave action could impact the Waukegan and Zion sites. And not in a good way.
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Because of extreme weather patterns, areas adjacent to Lake Michigan could face severe flooding inland up to a half-mile, according to a study issued in June by the Chicago-based Environmental Law and Policy Center. That would cover both the Waukegan and Zion toxic sites.
Such scenarios would “carry industrial pollutants to surrounding areas and into Lake Michigan,” the study warns. Storm surges would cause major flooding and allow toxic chemicals to move farther down the shoreline to menace communities.
Fortunately, lake levels have been down this summer by more than 2 feet since 2020. Those measurements nearly matched the high-level year of 1986. The near-historic Lake Michigan wave action two years ago chewed up shoreline from Illinois Beach State Park, south to Chicago.
We continue to ignore the warnings of what’s in store for the future of Lake Michigan. Perhaps the next ecological crisis or Superfund site will finally hit home for those who care about the lake’s fragile balances.
Charles Selle is a former News-Sun reporter, political editor and editor.
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September 2, 2022 at 03:55PM