EnergyWire: ELPC’s Learner Finds No Support for Coal Plant Bailout in ICC Report


Governor Requests More Analysis of Downstate Power Market

By Jeffrey Tomich

Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner (R) is asking state regulators to further analyze potential policy options to ensure there’s ample generating capacity to meet electricity demand in the southern half of the state.

In a letter to the Illinois Commerce Commission chairman yesterday, Rauner adviser Mischa Fisher asked ICC staff for an updated snapshot of “resource adequacy” in downstate Illinois following a pair of workshops on the issue.

The letter also asked the commission staff for an “evidence-based assessment” of comments received by the commission by early April as well as to provide a “technical understanding” of potential policy solutions.

Fisher’s letter was in response to a 164-page report of ICC’s proceedings to study the downstate power market. The report, made available yesterday, made no recommendations. It simply summarized comments from more than three dozen parties that participated.

While the ICC doesn’t regulate power prices in Illinois, which restructured its retail electricity market two decades ago, Rauner asked the commission to evaluate concerns raised by power plant owners and the Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO) about the region’s ability to keep the lights on.

MISO, in fact, triggered the study with a May 1, 2017, letter from CEO John Bear to the governor and legislative leaders noting that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission rejected a proposal to overhaul the capacity market in the southern part of the state and that “additional action is needed in downstate Illinois to maintain reliability.”

Generator Dynegy Inc., which owns a half-dozen coal-fired power plants in central and southern Illinois, has for years warned that MISO’s capacity market didn’t incentivize investments needed to keep power plants running or attract new ones.

Last fall, a legislative committee heard testimony on a Dynegy-backed bill that would require the state to take over capacity procurement for consumers in the southern half of the state who buy energy from alternative suppliers (Energywire, Nov. 8, 2017).

Critics including consumer groups and environmental advocates panned the bill as a Dynegy bailout and said downstate Illinois has ample generating capacity.

The groups pointed to a June report by MISO and the Organization of MISO States, a group of utility regulators in MISO’s footprint, that showed southern Illinois with a surplus of capacity over the next five years.

What’s more, they say, the Future Energy Jobs Act, signed by Rauner in 2016, will spur development of additional wind and solar generation and energy efficiency investments (Energywire, July 13).

“Illinois is a net exporter of electricity, has a surplus of generation and clean wind power and solar energy and, energy efficiency resources are taking off,” Howard Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center, said in a statement yesterday. “There is no justification for a consumer-funded bailout of Dynegy’s uneconomic old coal plants.”

MISO, in its comments to the ICC, maintained that action is necessary to “ensure long-term investment in electric resources.” But the grid operator suggested there’s no crisis brewing.

“The short-term resource adequacy outlook is positive for Illinois,” MISO said.

PRESS RELEASE: Environmental Groups Urge Ohio River Commission to Resist Weakening Clean Water Protections, Maintain Pollution Control Standards


Environmental Groups Urge Ohio River Commission to Resist Weakening Clean Water Protections, Maintain Pollution Control Standards

Safe clean drinking water could be threatened for millions

Columbus, OHIO — A coalition of environmental groups from states along the Ohio River is calling for a multi-state commission to resist weakening clean water protections along the 900-mile long river. The decision to scuttle 60-year-old protections would impact millions of people in the states of Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia.

A majority of commissioners appointed to the Ohio River Valley Sanitation Commission, known as ORSANCO, is proposing revisions to its core mission that would eliminate key Pollution Control Standards and withdraw ORSANCO from the responsibility of ensuring consistent water quality throughout the Ohio River. ORSANCO was created as an interstate water pollution control agency in part to ensure pollution dumped into the Ohio River in one state doesn’t have a negative effect on the waters of another state.

Environmental groups submitted comments to ORSANCO opposing the proposal to eliminate ORSANCO’s water quality standards during a public comment period that ended February 24.

“ORSANCO commissioners walking away from their crucial oversight role will set the stage for a ‘race to the bottom’ in controlling pollution in the Ohio River,” said Madeline Fleisher, Senior Attorney at the Environmental Law & Policy Center, one of the groups that submitted comments. “We can’t afford to lose the one watchdog in charge of making sure the entire Ohio River is safe and clean for more than four million people who rely on it for their drinking water.”

“The proposed action by ORSANCO jeopardizes water quality achievements and threatens interstate cooperation to control and continue to reduce Ohio River pollution,” said Rich Cogen, Executive Director at Ohio River Foundation and Chair of the Watershed Organizations Advisory Committee for ORSANCO.

“Every person deserves to turn on their tap and know their drinking water is safe,” said Kristy Meyer, Vice President of Policy at the Ohio Environmental Council. “The Ohio River is critical to the local economy and the quality of life in the region which is why ORSANCO should be strengthening its water quality standards, rather than rolling back protections.”

“Sixty years ago, states bordering the Ohio River had the vision to work together to put in place clean water protections that allowed the Ohio River to successfully support industry and commerce, as well as provide clean drinking water for people and a home for fish and wildlife,” said Gail Hesse, Great Lakes Water Director for the National Wildlife Federation. “This foundation of cooperation for a sustainable river has served the region well, and to scuttle it now would be irresponsible.”

“The idea of ORSANCO abandoning their oversight of uniform pollution control standards flies in the face of why the Commission was established in the first place,” said Angie Rosser, Executive Director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition. “This move would undermine the ability of the Ohio to recover as a healthy river system.”

“The Ohio River is a critical natural resource with communities investing and generating millions of dollars in riverfront development and recreation,” said Jason Flickner, the Lower Ohio River Waterkeeper Director and Hoosier Chapter Sierra Club board member. “Now is not the time for ORSANCO to relinquish its important work setting pollution limits.”

“We still believe it is a very good idea for ORSANCO to ensure pollution dumped into the Ohio River doesn’t have a negative impact on waters of other states – especially in light of spills from recent times – like the MCHM spill in 2014,” said Robin Blakeman, Project Coordinator of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. “Such petrochemical product spills are likely to be more, not less common in the future, especially if the massive Appalachian Petrochemical Storage Hub project becomes reality very close to the Ohio River.”

Environmental groups that submitted comments to ORSANCO include: Environmental Law & Policy Center, Ohio Environmental Council, National Wildlife Federation, Kentucky Waterways Alliance, Ohio River Foundation, West Virginia Rivers Coalition, Three Rivers Waterkeeper, Sierra Club, Hoosier Environmental Council and Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition.


PRESS RELEASE: Illinois EPA VW Settlement Plan Drafted Without Promised Public Hearings


Illinois Environmental Protection Agency VW Settlement Plan Drafted Without Promised Public Hearings

 Plan Fails to Maximize Zero Emission Transportation

In response to the release today by the Illinois EPA of a draft plan for the use of $108 million allotted to the State of Illinois under the Volkswagen cheating scandal, environmental and public health groups issued the following statement:

“In May 2017, environmental and public health groups met with IEPA Director Alec Messina to urge transparency and public engagement in the preparation of the state’s VW mitigation plan. Director Messina assured us the agency would hold 12 public hearings across the state. Unfortunately, not a single meeting has been held. Instead, we have a plan that was developed behind closed doors,” said Jennifer Walling, Executive Director of the Illinois Environmental Council. “This is an extraordinary opportunity for Illinois to invest $108 million in clean transportation infrastructure, but we are very concerned about the lack of transparency and believe the agency’s plan fails to maximize opportunities to benefit public health and cleaner air. We prefer the public hearing and allocation strategies outlined in legislation that has been introduced in Springfield. As opposed to IEPA’s secretive process thus far, the proposed legislation would fully involve the public and immediately jump start the electrification of the transportation sector.”

Brian Urbaszewski, Director, Environmental Health at Respiratory Health Association, stated:Diesel pollution triggers asthma attacks and increases cardiovascular disease; it puts seniors in the hospital and causes children to miss school days because they are home sick. With clean electric vehicles including cars, school buses and transit buses already on the roads, it’s extremely disappointing the state isn’t maximizing the opportunity to transition to such clean vehicles that would improve the health of everyone. Illinois should focus on fully committing to non-polluting electric vehicle solutions.”

“With $108 million on the table, Illinois is positioned to dramatically increase its electric vehicle infrastructure and accelerate the viability of electric vehicles in our state. But this proposal diminishes that opportunity,” said Toba Pearlman, Clean Energy Advocate with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “We strongly urge the agency to reconsider and seize this opportunity.”

Susan Mudd, Senior Policy Advocate with the Environmental Law & Policy Center, said: “The one bright spot in the plan is IEPA’s commitment to electric school buses that protect children. Fewer kids across the state will be exposed to harmful diesel emissions that can trigger asthma attacks, interfere with children’s ability to learn and result in missed school days.”

IEC’s Walling added: “In addition to the lack of a public process, the IEPA plan does not do enough to create the greatest long-term benefits and protect those most vulnerable.”

Lead sponsors of legislation in Springfield that would require public input in the process and that would require the funding to advance the electrification of transportation also responded to the proposal.

“The Volkswagen settlement presents a great opportunity for Illinois to improve our transportation infrastructure, especially for transit and electric vehicles. For Illinois to make the most of this opportunity, it is essential that all stakeholders are allowed to provide meaningful input into how these funds are spent, and that there is a transparent process for public engagement,” said State Sen. Cristina Castro (D-Elgin). “It’s for these reasons, that I am proud to sponsor SB3103, which would require the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency to establish a task force that  includes all stakeholders in development of the state’s mitigation plan.”

State Sen. Heather Steans (D-Chicago) also called for a plan that maximizes investment in electric vehicle infrastructure.

“While we cannot undo the harm done by the added pollution Volkswagen knowingly permitted, this settlement provides Illinois with an opportunity to improve public health by reducing pollution going forward,” Sen. Steans said. “SB3055 would direct the maximum allowable amount of money under the terms of the settlement to electric vehicle charging stations. Additional investments in electric buses for public schools and electric fleets for municipalities will make our air cleaner by replacing polluting vehicles with non-emitting ones immediately, and make it easier for Illinoisans to switch to electric vehicles in the long term.”

“The crimes committed by Volkswagen caused real harm to Illinois drivers and to our air quality, and the public deserves an opportunity to guide how these settlement dollars are invested for maximum public benefit by electrifying our transportation system,” said Jack Darin, Director of the Sierra Club, Illinois Chapter.  “Illinois EPA’s proposal to turn a deaf ear to public input and subsidize fossil fuels with these dollars is decidedly un-electrifying.”


Chicago Tribune: Who Gets the VW Money?

Who Gets the VW Money?
By Mary Wisniewski

The state’s Environmental Protection Agency is expected to release a first-round proposal on Monday about how to spend $108.7 million from a national settlement Volkswagen reached with the U.S. government over the German automaker’s emissions scandal — and it’s already raising eyebrows.

That’s according to environmental advocates, though the timing could not immediately be confirmed by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, which has the job of putting a plan together and distributing the funds. Those who’ve been briefed on the so-called draft proposal say they’re not too happy, because the agency is not holding public hearings to discuss how the money should be spent, like other Midwestern states have done.

“People in Illinois were harmed by the pollution that resulted in the VW settlement,” said Jennifer Walling, executive director of the Illinois Environmental Council, who learned about the plan from IEPA Director Alec Messina last week. “By taking away the opportunity for people to comment in public hearings, it takes away their chance to participate and say how they should be paid back for what was done to their health and the environment.”

VW agreed to pay more than $15 billion in settlements after admitting to installing secret software that allowed U.S. vehicles to emit up to 40 times the legally allowable level of pollution. Some of that money is going to states for clean-air programs.

Environmental groups want 15 percent of Illinois’ share of the money, or about $16.3 million, to go to plug-in charging stations for electric vehicles. They want the rest to go toward replacing diesel school and public transit buses with electric versions, to reduce diesel pollution.

But the IEPA instead plans to spend up to 15 percent of the money on administrative costs, and most of the rest on “off-road” technology, Walling said. This could mean rail or boats. A small percentage of the total could go to electric school buses, Walling said.

Walling said she was concerned that some money will go to private interests and/or replacing older diesel vehicle engines with newer ones. While newer engines would be less polluting, this would not cut nearly as much diesel pollution as buying electric buses and providing electric charging infrastructure, advocates argue.

“It provides no structural kick in the pants,” said Allen Grosboll, legislative director for the Environmental Law and Policy Center, an advocacy group. He said Messina told environmental groups last May that the agency would have public hearings around the state.

But Walling now says there’s no commitment to public hearings.

Other states have gathered public comments and held hearings for more than a year and are close to finalizing their plans — Minnesota, for example, had 13 public hearings, Environmental Law and Policy Center officials said.

Kim Biggs, spokeswoman with the Illinois EPA, countered that the agency conducted a “very open process,” which has included meeting with interested parties upon request. She said the agency also will be doing a survey to get feedback.

“The agency has provided for a slightly different approach than some other states all of whom vary in approach,” Biggs said.

Once the IEPA submits its final plan, it can start accessing settlement money in 30 days, and it can be spent within 10 years, said Policy Center representatives.


WGN Radio: ELPC’s Rob Kelter Talks about the Latest in Electric Vehicles

Wintrust Business Lunch

February 17, 2018

Jon Hansen is joined by Rob Kelter, senior attorney at Environmental Law & Policy Center, to talk about the latest in electric vehicles and the impact they had at the Chicago Auto Show.



WTTW Chicago Tonight: Illinois Idling on Spending Plan for VW Settlement Money

Illinois Idling on Spending Plan for Volkswagen Settlement Money

By Alex Ruppenthal

February 16, 2018

Illinois is slated to receive $108.7 million in non-taxpayer money from a national settlement with Volkswagen over the German automaker’s emissions scandal. But unlike other states in the Midwest and across the country, Illinois continues to sit idling without a plan for how it will spend the money, which is intended for clean air projects.

Hoping to ignite that process, state Sen. Cristina Castro, D-Elgin, filed legislation this week that would give state officials a deadline for coming up with a plan. The bill would require the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, which is responsible for administering the settlement funds, to set up a task force to hear public comments and provide recommendations on the state’s use of the money by the end of the year.

States must submit mitigation plans detailing how the money will be spent before they can receive any funds from the settlement, which sets aside $2.7 billion for states and U.S. territories to use to reduce nitrous oxides, the type of pollution masked by software VW impelemented to cheat on federal emissions standards.

“Here we are now, [more than] a year later, and there is no public process,” said Al Grosboll, legislative director with the Chicago-based Environmental Law & Policy Center. “No hearings have been scheduled, no outreach has occurred, and there is nothing to look at.”

Environmental groups have been urging IEPA officials to jump-start the state’s mitigation plan for much of the past year. In May, a coalition of advocacy groups met with IEPA Director Alec Messina and offered suggestions on how the money should be spent.

During the meeting, Messina committed to holding multiple public input sessions in both Chicago and the St. Louis metro area, along with other locations throughout the state, according to an email the groups sent to Messina recapping their discussion.

As of Friday, no such sessions had been scheduled.


Toledo Blade: Congressmen, ELPC, Demand Faster Action on Asian Carp

Congressmen Demand Faster Action on Asian Carp
by Tom Henry

Twenty-six members of Congress — including U.S. Reps. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo), Bob Latta (R., Bowling Green), Tim Walberg (R., Tipton), and Debbie Dingell (D., Dearborn) — have joined numerous other elected officials in demanding more aggressive action from the Army Corps of Engineers against destructive Asian carp threatening to enter the Great Lakes near Chicago.

A bipartisan letter submitted Friday said the congressmen are firmly holding the Corps to an early 2019 deadline for completing the most crucial report to date for a long-term fix, called the Brandon Road Lock & Dam Study.

It affects the future of the Brandon Road lock near Joliet, Ill., and the series of Chicago-area waterways that artificially connect the Mississippi River and Great Lakes basins. That connection, made in the early 1900s, has made it possible for invasive carp moving north along the Mississippi to someday enter the Great Lakes via Lake Michigan.

The letter, submitted on the final day the Corps was accepting formal comments to its tentatively selected plan, mirrors one submitted earlier by several U.S. senators from the Great Lakes area, including Rob Portman (R., Ohio) and Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.), co-chairs of the Senate Great Lakes Task Force, and U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D., Ohio), U.S. Sen. Gary Peters (D., Mich.), and senators from Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, and New York who are members of that task force.

“Current estimates show it will take as long as eight years to have a barrier installed at the Brandon Road Lock and Dam — a time frame which is unacceptable,” Miss Kaptur said. “With the Asian carp on the doorstep of our region’s most vital natural resource, we have a small window of opportunity to stop this invasive species. Once the Asian carp are in the Great Lakes, it will be too late to stop the destruction they will cause.”

The Corps is looking at fortifying electric barriers and taking other measures to thwart the movement of carp and other exotics. But it has said it is unlikely to act on several measures before 2025, a timeline that senators and now congressmen have said is unacceptable.

Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, a 2018 gubernatorial candidate, likewise joined the fray late last week by telling the Corps in his formal comments that it should close the Brandon Road lock while also recognizing its obligation to meet previously agreed-upon deadlines.

While the Corps has tentatively selected a plan that uses electrical fences, noise, and water jets to keep out invasive species, Mr. DeWine and the large contingent of congressional members believe that doesn’t go far enough — especially after reports in June of a silver Asian carp found 9 miles from Lake Michigan, beyond the electric barriers.

The attorney general said the Corps should implement the lock closure alternative, which will be the most effective and cheapest to construct.

The Chicago-area decision affects Ohio because Lake Erie is the epicenter of the Great Lakes region’s $7 billion fishery, valued at more than all commercial and recreational fishing in U.S. waters along the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and the Gulf of Mexico.

More fish are spawned and caught in Lake Erie than the other four Great Lakes combined.

Researchers have said Ohio’s tourism and recreation industries would greatly suffer if Asian carp found their way to western Lake Erie.

Mr. DeWine also encouraged the Corps to work on plans for a multibillion-dollar, complete hydrologic separation of the Mississippi River and Great Lakes basins to block the spread of Asian carp.

A contingent of five major environmental groups — the Alliance for the Great Lakes, the Environmental Law & Policy Center, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Prairie Rivers Network, and the Illinois chapter of the Sierra Club — also demanded a more aggressive response from the Corps via 21 pages of joint comments submitted Friday.

“Now is the time for all effective and necessary action steps,” Howard Learner, executive director of the Chicago-based Environmental Law & Policy Center, said. “Further delays risk Asian carp getting into Lake Michigan while the Army Corps is fiddling. Prevention solutions now are wise investments.”


Great Lakes Now: ELPC’s Learner Tells US Army Corps to Stop Fiddling, Act Fast on Asian Carp Report

Pace of Asian Carp Plan “taking far too long”
Michigan Senators Critical of Timetable

by Gary Wilson

The debate about how to stop Asian carp from entering the Great Lakes hit another milestone last week as the Army Corps of Engineers’ extended comment period on a potential solution came to a close.

The controversy is now in its second decade.

The opportunity to comment was expanded to accommodate a previously unscheduled session in New Orleans. The extension angered Michigan Senators Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters who say the “process is taking far too long.”

The Corps has been seeking public input on its plan, known as the Brandon Road Lock study, since September. If implemented, the plan would provide a suite of options to keep carp out of the Great Lakes.

in a letter to the Corps, Stabenow and Peters questioned why the New Orleans meeting wasn’t scheduled earlier.

The Brandon Road Lock, 50 miles from Lake Michigan, near Joliet, Illinois, is thought to be a choke point for stopping Asian carp.

But the final Army Corps report isn’t due until August of 2019, and Stabenow and Peters want that date moved up by eight months to January.

The senators expressed frustration that the Trump administration had delayed release of the report early in 2017.

Illinois Lt. Governor Evelyn Sanguinetti called for the report to be delayed in a column published in the Chicago Tribune in early 2017. Shipping interests in Illinois have lobbied against the Army Corps plan.

In their letter, Stabenow and Peters also questioned the Corps’ economic analysis of the impact of Asian carp on the Great Lakes.

“The (Army Corps) should not ignore the impact of Asian carp on several important industries – including recreation and tourism – or the economic impacts to the other Great Lakes besides Lake Erie,” the senators wrote.

Lake Erie’s fishery is the largest in the Great Lakes and thought to be the most vulnerable to an Asian carp invasion.

In a similar letter to the Army Corps, 28 members of the U.S. House from the Great Lakes region called for the original project timeline to be followed.


Input from environmental groups followed previously held positions but also sought to spotlight economic impacts.

Howard Learner said in a statement released to Great Lakes Now that the Army Corps’ proposals are a “starter.”

But Learner said they are “short of what’s needed to avoid the economic and ecological disaster if our public officials don’t prevent Asian Carp from entering the Great Lakes.”

He accused the Corps of “fiddling,” which would lead to additional delays.


Howard’s Crain’s Chicago Op-Ed: Chicago Can Lead the Climate Change Fight

December 08, 2017


4 Ways Chicago Can Lead the Climate Change Fight


President Donald Trump has walked away from climate change reality. But, fortunately for all of us, American cities like Chicago are stepping up. The recent North American Climate Summit here brought together 50-plus mayors to sign the Chicago Climate Charter, committing to take initiatives to help meet the Paris Climate Agreement’s pollution reduction goals.

As former President Barack Obama said at the event, cities, states, businesses and nonprofits have emerged as the new face of American leadership on climate change. Chicago’s climate action plan calls for reducing greenhouse gas pollution by 25 percent from 1990 levels by 2020, and new clean technologies provide even more opportunities for progress.

But the hard and most important work comes next: transforming these declarations and sincere aspirations into real actions that reduce carbon pollution in ways that achieve environmental and economic development together. Sooner, not later.

At the summit, Chicago shined brightly under Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s leadership. Here are four ways that Chicago can advance its leadership and transform its public commitments into meaningful and measurable climate actions that benefit all Chicagoans, join with other large cities and set a model for small and midsize cities to replicate.

First, the city of Chicago should procure 100 percent renewable energy for municipal electricity needs by 2022, not wait until 2025. The Midwest has abundant wind power, and solar energy and energy storage capacity is accelerating as prices fall while technologies improve. Chicago and other Illinois cities can work together on coordinated purchases from new Illinois clean renewable projects. Both our environment and Illinois’ 450-plus clean energy supply chain businesses should benefit.

Second, clean up municipal fleets. All new purchases should be electric vehicles except in special cases. Our nation’s transportation sector now produces more carbon pollution than the electric power sector. Cities can create demand to drive the EV market forward while reducing pollution. EVs have fewer moving parts and lower operating maintenance costs than internal combustion engine vehicles. Using wind and solar energy to power EV charging stations accelerates a cleaner transportation system. Chicago and 29 other cities are exploring joint EV procurement. Let’s clean up CTA buses and Illinois school buses, too. Chicago’s on the path—do it now.

Third, use cleaner fuels for existing diesel trucks and buses. At the summit, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee touted how the city and county fleets have switched to renewable biodiesel fuel to reduce carbon pollution. Cleaner fuels warrant a serious look here. Let’s tap the expertise of Chicago’s universities, national labs and engineering firms. These are big pollution savings opportunities for Chicago and other Midwest cities.

Fourth, energy efficiency is the best, fastest and cheapest climate change solution. The Retrofit Chicago program, which focuses on improving buildings’ efficiency, won a C40 Cities Bloomberg award at the summit. (Home court advantage acknowledged.) Let’s accelerate and max out. Why wait? The time has never been better for cities to reduce their energy bills and cut pollution through energy efficiency improvements. What’s more, efficiency creates installation jobs, produces cost savings, keeps money in our neighborhoods and avoids pollution.

What’s the time frame? Soon—climate change is taking its toll with more extreme weather events. Let’s implement these municipal declarations through rapid effective actions to reduce carbon pollution in ways that achieve environmental and economic development goals together. And let’s work together to turn words into tangible actions, accelerate measurable progress and help advance the Paris Climate Agreement goals. Chicago and partner cities can lead while Trump lags.

 Howard A. Learner is president and executive director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center.


Chicago Sun-Times Editorial: Protect Drinking Water Near Quarries Before There’s a Crisis

Sun-Times Editorial Board

Illinois does not need another case of rubble trouble.

Last week, the Associated Press reported that 80 percent of old Illinois quarries that allow the dumping of concrete and other demolition waste have higher-than-acceptable levels of toxins, according to state sampling results.
That’s a wake-up call. State authorities had better take action before we have an environmental disaster on our hands.

Spokesmen for industry argue that there is no reason for alarm because there is no sign of any health hazards — and Illinois has the strictest regulations in the nation for dumping “clean construction and demolition debris” at sites other than landfills. Road builders, construction companies and others who use the quarries say additional testing is unnecessary and too expensive.

But that overlooks a fundamental rule when it comes to the threat of environmental contamination: Always err on the side of caution. Once contaminants get into the environment, it is difficult and expensive — and sometimes impossible — to get them out. We should be bending over backward to keep our drinking water and the environment acceptably clean, not responding to a crisis.

Most waste is hauled off to landfills, which are capped with soil and designed with liners to prevent toxic material from fouling the air or leaching into groundwater. But an exception is made for construction material — lumber, bricks, broken concrete, etc. — that is considered “clean.” The exception — it can be dumped at a less sealed site — is made so that it does not fill up much-needed landfill space, and because it doesn’t generally present an environmental threat. Concrete is concrete.

But last spring, tests by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency found levels of arsenic, lead, mercury, atrazine and other heavy metals, pesticides and hazardous volatile organic compounds above permissible limits at 80 percent of the 92 Illinois quarries that accept clean construction debris. The former quarries, many of which are in Will County, often are directly above groundwater sources.

Dan Eichholz, executive director of the Illinois Association of Aggregate Producers, told the AP that the IEPA turned up no more contaminants than you’d get if you tested “clean soil from backyards all around Illinois.”

Sounds good, sure. But too often in the past authorities have ignored potential health risks until the cost of addressing them soared and people’s health was affected. Many Chicagoans still have raw memories of a pile of construction debris and tainted material that grew into “The Mountain” in West Garfield Park in the 1990s. Residents of Flint, Michigan, also learned the danger of ignoring potential health risks when lead from old pipes and fixtures contaminated their drinking water.

“This is a contaminated drinking water problem waiting to happen,” said Howard A. Learner, president and executive director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center. “There are sensible steps that should be taken at each of these sites.”

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan has filed a lawsuit that now is before the Illinois Appellate Court seeking to require groundwater monitoring at quarries that accept construction debris, citing the risk of pollutants getting “directly into the water table.”

In the Legislature, a coalition of environmentalists, local officials, Madigan and others last spring blocked by one vote a law that would have eased liability and permitting requirements for quarry owners. But an environment-friendly bill filed by state Rep. Margo McDermed (R-Mokena) that would have required groundwater monitoring at the quarries never made it out of committee.

McDermed said the recent IEPA testing showed the methods used to monitor construction degree “were completely inadequate.”

It can cost five times as much to dispose of materials at a landfill as in a former quarry, which creates a big incentive to dump so-called clean construction debris in quarries. But Henry Henderson, Midwest director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, cautions that “clean” debris is an inexact label. Much of it comes from the demolition of old buildings, he said, and it can include such contaminants as metals and asbestos.

Moreover, tainted groundwater is particularly difficult to clean up up once it has been tainted, Henderson said, pointing out that many communities outside the Chicago area rely on groundwater for drinking water.

Dumping construction debris in old quarries is not a bad idea. But an independent agency should monitor the material brought to those sites and the groundwater around them.

Preventive medicine is always best.



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