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Lax Oversight Of Coal Plant Demolitions Could Leave Illinois Communities Vulnerable

Workers watch from a safe distance as the main structure of the former Wood River Power Plant in East Alton is brought down by explosives Monday.  Three smokestacks that some Madison County residents are concerned could release potentially harmful pollutants were not part of the demolition at the former Dynegy coal fired power plant.
Derik Holtmann
Belleville News-Democrat
Workers watch from a safe distance as the main structure of the former Wood River Power Plant in East Alton is brought down by explosives Monday. Three smokestacks that some Madison County residents are concerned could release potentially harmful pollutants were not part of the demolition at the former Dynegy coal fired power plant.

Environmentalists in Illinois worry that having few regulations for coal-fired power plant demolitions will increase the chance for a toxic disaster when these facilities are dismantled.

Since 2009, 12 of the state’s 23 remaining coal power plants have closed, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. Five more, all owned by Vistra Energy, are set to close this decade, according to an announcement from the company. One of those is in Baldwin, 40 miles southeast of St. Louis.

Six others will either close some generating units or have no official retirement dates.

“We’re hitting this big transition moment; all these power plants are going to close,” said Andrew Rehn, a civil engineer at Prairie Rivers Network, which works on water, land and pollution issues across Illinois. “We just don’t have a plan, and it’s coming across the state.”

The plant closures leave behind property with massive buildings and smokestacks laden with heavy metal byproducts, like mercury, arsenic and lead, from decades of burning coal. Most are still standing.

Only three plants in Illinois have seen demolition activity so far, said a spokesperson from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. They are the Pearl Generating Station north of St. Louis, the Crawford Generating Station in Chicago and, most recently, the Wood River Power Station in East Alton.

Ahead of last month’s demolition of the Wood River Power Station’s main building, local residents and environmental groups worried what might happen because the property’s owner, Commercial Liability Partners, avoided talking with local residents and elected leaders, said Toni Oplt, chair of the Metro East Green Alliance.

Her small group of Madison County residents sent emails, made phone calls and submitted “contact us” forms on the company’s website after first noticing the plant was being taken apart in 2019.

“After about the fifth email, I got a response that said, ‘We’re doing everything we’re supposed to do, thank you very much,’” Oplt said. “They would never meet with us, they would never talk with us.”

A spokesperson for Commercial Liability Partners said that the company will follow all current safety regulations for the remaining smokestack demolition and that it has stayed in contact with local and IEPA officials.

Oplt’s experience with the company appears to mirror what happened months earlier at another shuttered coal power station with a different property owner in Chicago.

In April 2020, crews contracted by Hilco Redevelopment Partners imploded a smokestack at the old Crawford Generating Station. It sent a thick cloud of dust over the city’s Little Village neighborhood, a working-class community of about 75,000, most of whom are Mexican and Central American immigrant families.

Edith Tovar, a community organizer with the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, recalls her group struggled to get detailed information about the demolition from Hilco and the City of Chicago.

“A lot of our departments within our city were reassuring us that all the right precautions were taken,” Tovar said. “Yet there were zero water tanks on site to try and diminish the cloud of dust from traveling that far.”

That dust can contain toxic heavy metals, byproducts from burning coal that remain in the smokestacks and parts of coal power plant buildings even after they’re decommissioned, said Delphine Farmer, an atmospheric chemist at Colorado State University.

“Heavy metals, like arsenic and lead, tend to just stick onto the surface of dust really well,” she said.

A spokesperson for Hilco said federal, state and local authorities found nothing harmful in the dust that drifted offsite from the demolition.

The city fined Hilco $68,000 for the implosion problems, and the company and its partners later paid $370,000 to settle a suit brought by the Illinois attorney general.

“These are all very low fines for a disaster that they caused,” Tovar said.

The company said it took responsibility for the problems with the implosion and fired the contractor and subcontractor.

The implosion in Chicago overwhelmed the Little Village organization, which was already stretched thin working to support neighborhood residents in the early weeks of pandemic lockdowns, Tovar said. After the fact, many of the organization’s questions about who would be held accountable for the demolition problems remained unanswered, she said.

“We had nothing,” Tovar said. “The City of Chicago had nothing to share with us. IEPA also had nothing to share with us.”

Oplt and Rehn saw the damage in Chicago and worried the same could happen in the Metro East or at one of Illinois’ other coal plants. They both individually contacted state officials, including those at IEPA, asking what regulations the state has for coal-fired power plant demolitions.

“Not once could anyone ever definitively say, ‘This company will have to be accountable,’” Oplt said. “There really isn’t any agency, any entity who can step in and say, ‘You cannot hurt this community by your actions.’”

A spokesperson for IEPA confirmed that the state doesn’t have specific regulations for coal-fired power plant demolitions. Companies only have to alert the agency when they plan to demolish something and meet national emission standards for asbestos, which apply generally to demolition activities.

“If there’s no process, there’s no way for the community to know what’s going to happen,” Rehn said. “And there isn’t any accountability put on the company.”

When Oplt turned to officials in Madison County asking about rules for coal plant demolitions, the response was lackluster, she said.

“They were often pointing us back and forth at each other,” Oplt said. “There just wasn’t accountability.”

Most of Illinois’ remaining coal plants are in rural areas, but there are a few that are nestled in metro areas, including the Wood River Power Station, whose smokestacks are still standing. They’re set to come down this month after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers finishes evaluating how their demolition might affect nearby river levees.

All communities where these former plants still stand deserve to know they’ll be safe when the old energy infrastructure is eventually demolished, Rehn said.

He added: “It’s a transparency issue of really understanding, ‘What does this process look like? And how can people protect themselves?’”

Follow Eric on Twitter: @EricDSchmid

Copyright 2021 St. Louis Public Radio

Eric Schmid covers the Metro East area in Illinois for St. Louis Public Radio. He joins the news team as its first Report for America corps member and is tasked with expanding KWMU's coverage east from the Mississippi. Before joining St. Louis Public Radio, Eric held competitive internships at Fox News Channel, NPR-affiliate WSHU Public Radio and AccuWeather. As a news fellow at WSHU's Long Island Bureau, he covered governments and environmental issues as well as other general assignments. Eric grew up in Northern Colorado but attended Stony Brook University, in New York where he earned his degree in journalism in 2018. He is an expert skier, avid reader and lifelong musician-he plays saxophone and clarinet.
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