News Local/State

Middle Fork Of Vermilion Named To Endangered River List

Fisherman on the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River.

Two fishermen test their luck on the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River at Kickapoo State Recreation Area. The Vermilion Power Station site is located north of the recreation area. Wikimedia Commons/Stojak1 (CC0 1.0)

The Middle Fork of the Vermilion River is the only river in Illinois protected under the federal Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. But the group American Rivers has placed the east central Illinois waterway on its annual list of Most Endangered Rivers.

American Rivers says the Middle Fork is at risk of pollution from toxic coal ash stored in pits near its banks at the long-closed Vermilion Power Station. The group says the erosion rate of the river bank next to the pits could lead to the river compromising them in 8 to 18 years, “while a record flood could cause a breach at any time”.

Andrew Rehn with the Prairie Rivers Network, which nominated the Middle Fork for the Most Endangered Rivers list, says that if you take a canoe on the river, you can see signs of leakage.

“And when you get near the power station, you can see orange-stained river bank, where the water, high in iron and other things, is seeping through the riverbank”, said Rehn. “And iron oxidizes and turns it orange.”

Vermilion Power Station owner Dynegy, which completed a merger this week with Vistra Energy, has proposed capping the coal ash pits. But Rehn says that even with the caps, there’s still the risk of toxic materials leaking from the bottom of the unlined pits. He says the Prairie Rivers Network is concerned is that Dynegy will install inadequate protections against leakages and then leave future problems for others to deal with.

“If Dynegy gets the cap, that’s probably going to be what we get,” said Rehn. “That means that years from now, if there’s a spill, or if the river starts rapidly degrading in quality, that’s going to be the public’s problem to deal with, if Dynegy’s able to cap and sell the property and leave.” 

Concern over coal ash pollution led the Prairie Rivers Network to announce plans in January to file a lawsuit against Dynegy under the federal Clean Water Act. The lawsuit has not yet been filed.

But Dynegy/Vistra Energy says capping the coal ash pits at the Vermilion Power Station is an old proposal, submitted as part of action plans to the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency in 2012 and 2014. According to spokesperson David Byford, their proposal also includes riverbank stabilization to reverse erosion along the Middle Fork. And he says the company is also looking at other options, which could include recycling materials from the coal ash that could have beneficial uses.

Dynegy acquired the coal-powered Vermilion Power Station when it bought Illinois Power and its power plants in 2000. It sold the electric utility to Ameren a few years later, but kept the power plants. Dynegy closed the Vermilion Power Station in 2011, citing its use of low-sulphur coal that created extra costs.

The Vermilion Power Station site is located near several recreation areas along the Middle Fork, including the Windfall Prairie Nature Preserve and Kennekuk Cove County Park to the north, and the Middle Fork Woods Nature Preserve and Kickapoo State Recreation Area to the south.

(This article was revised to note the Prairie Rivers Network's plans to file suit against Dynegy - JM 4/10/18)