What would Willis do?

Will CWLP not have to clean up its act?

click to enlarge CWLP coal ash pit. - PHOTO BY PATRICK YEAGLE
CWLP coal ash pit.
For years the Sierra Club has played the conscience of City Water, Light and Power in the absence of mayors and aldermen capable of the role. Most people can agree that having a conscience is a good thing, but no one likes be nagged by one, and CWLP is doubtless fed up with the Sierra Club telling it how it ought to run its business.

Well, somebody has to. CWLP stores fly ash and bottom ash in unlined open pits along Sugar Creek, downstream from the dam whose construction created Lake Springfield. Imagine if you “disposed” of your household trash by dumping it in the back yard. The problem is that coal ash contains high levels of harmful heavy metals such as arsenic, lead, mercury and selenium which, ounce for ounce, are among the most toxic of nature’s dubious gifts. Water can carry this stuff into the soil and thus into groundwater or into Sugar Creek.

In the fall of 2015 the U.S. EPA adopted stricter coal ash disposal standards. Under these new standards, coal ash impoundments like CWLP’s would have to be closed and replaced by new, leak-proof ones. CWLP doesn’t want to do it, and commissioned a study by energy consultants Burns & McDonnell in part, one suspects, to provide a rationale for their reluctance to act after 50 years. That study in 2013 concluded that complying with the new standards could cost the utility $33 million.

Well, you know how it is – put off a repair and it only ends up costing more.

For decades, CWLP customers enjoyed rates that were artificially low because the mayors and city councils have consistently acted to shield them from paying all the costs of running the city power plant, including pollution prevention, until the full force of regulators was brought to bear. It had resigned itself to finally cleaning up its ash pits too, until Donald Trump crawled into the White House.

In January, CWLP’s chief engineer Doug Brown told the SJ-R that under the new administration its “concerns . . . about moving the rules too fast” would be listened to. Moving too fast? Wastes from the combustion of fossil fuels have been the topic of discussions at the U.S. EPA since the 1970s, but lobbying by the coal and utility industries kept them from being classified and regulated as hazardous wastes for decades.

The Trump administration is not the first Republican White House to obstruct adoption of stricter measures; the Reagan EPA simply ignored statutorily required deadlines for studies and other necessary actions in the 1980s, a forerunner of the institutional sabotage that Trump has sanctioned. It took a lawsuit to get the process unstuck. But the rule that CWLP complains is being adopted too fast was proposed by EPA in 2010, and culminated a process that began nearly a decade earlier.

Local critics of the practice, led by the Sierra Club, asked the Illinois EPA to at least regulate this outflow, in 2015, and the other day they formally asked the Illinois Pollution Control Board to order the utility to clean up contaminated groundwater at the site. Will Bruce Rauner’s EPA be any more responsive than Trump’s? Not judging by his proposed amendments to state rules that would allow the dirtiest coal plants in Illinois to run even dirtier, amendments offered, remember, by the former coal lobbyist who now runs the state EPA.

We might ask the question: What would Willis J. Spaulding have done? He was the reformist public utilities commissioner who from 1911 to 1943 built Springfield’s city-owned – he would have preferred the term “people’s – power and water systems. The utility was founded, remember, to protect Springfieldians from pollution, in this case polluted drinking water. CWLP undertook to build a new water source and water plant equipped with state-of-the-art filtration and treatment technologies, some of which were perfected by Willis Spaulding’s brother, Charles. It is always unwise to put words into the mouths of the dead, but I find it hard to imagine that the Spauldings would be indifferent to the kinds of risks that the ponds pose to the public.

Yes, Springfield faces more pressing environmental threats. (Toxic chemicals these days come not out of the water tap but out of prescription drug bottles, and the polluters are the drug companies and the insurance companies that peddle opiates to a gullible and confused public.) But Willis Spaulding was no mere environmentalist. He managed the public’s resources with a view toward the future. The longer term trend in environmental regulation was planned a generation ago, a generation during which CWLP could have been planning and saving to replace those pits. It did neither. Managing coal ash in a sensible and prudent way is worth doing simply because it’s sensible and prudent – traits that the public ought to expect of the people who manage Springfield’s most valuable resource on the public’s behalf. 

NOTE: The original version of this piece stupidly had the ash ponds located upstream of Spaulding Dam. They are downstream. This version fixes that.. 

Contact James Krohe Jr. at CaptBogue@outlook.com.

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