Press Release

Press Release: Groups Appeal Water Pollution Permit for Waukegan Coal Plant on Lake Michigan

Groups Site Unlawful Permit Provisions that Give Coal Plant a Free Pass to Pollute

Click Here to View Appeal filed at the Illinois Pollution Control Board



Judith Nemes, [email protected], 312-795-3706


WAUKEGAN, Ill. – Today, the Sierra Club, Environmental Law & Policy Center and other environmental organizations appealed Illinois Environmental Protection Agency’s (IEPA) water pollution permit for NRG’s Waukegan coal plant. The permit, the groups argue, falls far short of implementing necessary protections for Lake Michigan.

The current permit allows NRG to continue running the 57-year-old Waukegan coal plant as-is rather than making long-overdue upgrades to the plant’s intake and discharge system. The plant has been operating with a permit last issued 14 years ago.

“By allowing NRG to skirt the issue of real technological upgrades to this old plant, IEPA is permitting the Waukegan plant to pollute at the same high rate for at least another five years,” said Greg Wannier, attorney with the Sierra Club. “IEPA has no legal authority to extend NRG’s variance, which avoids a law designed to protect the delicate and critical ecosystem found in Lake Michigan. As Lake Michigan adapts to even more stressors brought on by climate disruption, IEPA has an obligation to implement the law in a way that best protects the lake.”

In the appeal, the organizations call for the IEPA to revoke the final permit and to reissue with limits necessary to protect Lake Michigan in compliance with the Clean Water Act. Through its permitting process, the IEPA is responsible for ensuring the Waukegan plant minimizes Lake Michigan fish kills caused by its intake structures like the one used at the Waukegan plant. New limits would require “closed-cycle” cooling, which would almost eliminate those impacts to aquatic life.

The Waukegan coal plant currently operates using an outdated system known as once-through cooling. The system consists of a large pipe that draws freshwater into the plant for cooling, cleaning and moving coal ash out of the plant’s boiler. According to a 2011 Chicago Tribune report, the intake pipe at Waukegan is responsible for killing 5.2 million fish per year

Massive heat transfers occur as the lake water passes through the plant, and it is then discharged back into Lake Michigan at significantly elevated temperatures. The permit allows 5 million gallons of Lake Michigan water to go through this “once-through” process every day. Technology can reduce this impact by 98 percent, yet despite its widespread use, IEPA and NRG passed on the technology in favor of continuing a 37-year old variance allowing the plant to continue discharging piping hot water into Lake Michigan.

“Every year, the Waukegan coal plant kills millions of fish and other aquatic life from Lake Michigan.  No fishing license would allow such an abuse of this resource, but IEPA has given NRG a license to kill, without even requiring the application that’s required by law,” said Jessica Dexter, staff attorney with the Environmental Law & Policy Center. “NRG is a relatively new arrival to our shores, so we urge them to take more seriously their responsibility to be good stewards of Lake Michigan.”

“Over 100 community members from the Waukegan area came out to testify in 2013 on the IEPA’s draft permit for this plant, and I’m proud  that our engagement won some improvements,” said Mitch Siegel, Waukegan resident with the Clean Power Lake County Campaign. “However, the permit still falls short of what’s needed to protect Lake Michigan and NRG Energy is avoiding long-overdue upgrades to the plant that its predecessor Midwest Generation also avoided. With a new company, we expect a new approach.”

The outdated cooling system is just one of the concerns regarding water pollution linked to the Waukegan coal plant. In 2012, Sierra Club, ELPC, Prairie Rivers Network and CARE filed an enforcement case for groundwater contamination at all of NRG’s coal plants, including Waukegan.  At Waukegan, samples taken by the coal plant’s previous owner, Midwest Generation, indicate that coal ash waste from the coal ash impoundments has seeped into groundwater, contaminating the water with pollutants such as arsenic, boron and sulfate at levels above primary Safe Drinking Water Act Maximum Contaminant Limits. In March, the groups updated the complaint after previously undisclosed ash dumps were discovered on the site.   The proximity of the ash ponds to Lake Michigan makes many community members concerned about preventing further seepage.

Additionally, from 2002 through 2010, Midwest Generation reported to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that it released more than 1,000 pounds of toxins into surface waters surrounding its Waukegan coal-fired power plant. There are no federal protections that limit discharged toxins from coal plants into bodies of water. The US EPA is currently reviewing new standards to set such limits which are expected to be finalized in August of 2015.