A diagram of the Vermilion Power Station coal ash ponds and the Middle Fork River

The costs of closing a coal ash waste site
Who pays and for how long?

At Dynegy's coal ash ponds at the Vermilion Power Station, toxic pollution is already impacting groundwater and the Middle Fork River. The company is preparing several options for completely closing the site, including removing the coal ash, or simply capping the ponds and leaving the coal ash in place. Both options have costs; the question is who pays how much, and when.

A large pile of coal waste

The coal ash problem
What is coal ash, and why is it a problem?

In 2016 U.S. coal plants produced 107 million tons of coal ash. About 60 million tons were reused for industrial products like cement and construction materials, leaving 47 million tons left over as waste. That waste contains toxic chemicals and heavy metals dangerous to human health and the environment. There are more than a thousand coal ash sites across the U.S., and many of them are polluting groundwater, rivers and lakes.

Since 1955 the Vermilion Power Plant has been storing toxic coal ash in three ponds next to the Middle Fork Vermilion River near Oakwood, Illinois

Loose regulations allow coal ash to threaten river
Middle Fork River at risk from Dynegy coal ash ponds

Each year thousands of families boat down the Middle Fork branch of the Illinois Vermilion River below an embankment that holds back 3.3 million cubic yards of toxic coal ash sludge stored in three large ponds. Coal ash pollution is leaching into the river, and the riverbank is eroding under the ponds. We examine what's a stake in this investigative report.

Erosion on the bank of the Middle Fork River near the Dynegy coal ash ponds

Riverbank near coal ash ponds found unstable
Residents, environmentalists worry about a possible collapse

Environmentalists and community members in Vermilion County have expressed deep concern over the pollution from toxic chemicals seeping from large coal ash ponds into the Middle Fork River in Vermilion County. But engineering experts warn there may be a greater risk posed by the collapse of the riverbank holding back more than 600 million of gallons of toxic coal ash.

People canoeing on a river

Protecting the Middle Fork from coal ash: How long is ‘perpetuity?’
Everyone agrees on the 'P' word

Dynegy is planning to close the coal ash ponds at its shuttered Vermilion Power Station near Oakwood, Illinois. The company may propose to remove the toxic coal ash from the banks of the Middle Fork River, or cap the ponds and leave them in place. The Illinois EPA says the river must be protected "in perpetuity." But after Dynegy walks away from the site, what does perpetuity mean?