By Brian Stansberry, via Wikimedia Commons
The Tennessee Valley Authority Kingston Fossil Plant coal fly ash slurry spill occurred Dec. 22, 2008, in Roane County, Tenn.
This June, organizations across Illinois will launch Coal Ash Stories, a statewide screening tour featuring four short documentary films focused on coal ash, that expose the public health concerns, related policy, and community responses to this environmental injustice. Coal ash, the toxic byproduct from burning coal, contains toxic heavy metals such as arsenic, lead, selenium and other health- threatening substances.
In Alton, the screening is set for 6:30 p.m. Saturday, June 27, at Riverbender Community Center, 200 West Third St., and will be hosted by Metro East Green Alliance, Piasa Palisades Group of the Illinois Chapter Sierra Club, La Vista CSA and the Alton Cluster of United Congregations of Metro East.
Each event pairs the films with a discussion led by those who have worked on and are affected by the issue in Illinois. The purpose of these events is to draw public and political attention to the toxic impact of coal ash on communities in Illinois, which is particularly important because the state is creating rules for handling and disposing of this hazardous waste. Rhiannon Fionn, filmmaker and creator of the documentary-in-progress “Coal Ash Chronicles,” will be at each of the screenings.
According to a Working Films press release, there are more than 90 coal ash pits across Illinois, and water contamination has been found at every site tested. Dumping toxic coal ash in these toxic pits is an outdated and dangerous disposal method, the press release states. Most of the ponds are unlined and were built in floodplains, on top of mines, and near rivers and lakes where they threaten Illinois’ water supply. The threat is growing - more than 4.4 million tons of coal ash waste is produced in Illinois every year.
In Illinois, concerns about the cost of cleanup loom large for the state and its taxpayers. The state’s coal plant operators have a rocky financial history, creating serious concerns about their ability to pay for cleanup, either in the case of an accident or when the plant is replaced with cleaner energy sources.
In December 2014, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released its long-awaited coal ash protections, which provide guidance and regulatory language that states should adopt and enforce. Illinois has also been working on a state rule since 2013 to address the more than 90 coal ash waste sites in the state. The challenge now is to incorporate the requirements of the new federal rule into the draft state rule. A state rule that includes financial assurances for coal ash impoundments (which tire disposal sites have) and requires cleanup of all coal ash sites, not only those at active power plants, would better protect communities in Illinois.
“We know all too well that Illinois’ coal plant operators are not afraid to file for bankruptcy and walk away, potentially putting Illinois taxpayers on the hook for coal ash cleanup. Illinois must include in its final coal ash standards a financial assurance provision to protect taxpayers and their drinking water by placing the financial obligation for coal ash dump cleanup squarely on polluters. The public shouldn’t get stuck with the bill for a polluter’s disaster,” said Alexandra Cope of Godfrey, a member of the Metro East Green Alliance (MEGA).
The four films featured in Coal Ash Stories are "An Ill Wind,” "At What Cost?,” "Coal Ash Chronicles” and "Downwind and Downstream.” Collectively, they paint a grim picture of what life looks like when coal ash contaminates a community. People are unable to drink their own water, take a bath, fish, or farm without worrying about long-term health effects. Similar fears are felt by communities located near coal-fired power plants in Illinois.
“The health of residents in our community and in many communities throughout Illinois is at risk due to leaking coal ash disposal facilities. Now is the time for the people of Illinois to call on the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency to enact strong rules that will protect the quality of drinking water for everyone in the state” said Ellen Rendulich, president of Citizens Against Ruining the Environment and a Lockport resident who lives within a mile of coal ash pits owned by NRG Energy.
Filmmaker Rhiannon Fionn states, "It is important to elevate conversations about pollution of all kinds in our country for the sake of our health and the health and viability of future generations. My hope is that films like mine will galvanize citizens who have the power to push for positive change."
The Illinois screening tour is co-presented by 19 organizations including: Eco-Justice Collaborative, Prairie Rivers Network, Prairie Group of the Illinois Chapter Sierra Club, Students for Environmental Concerns, Metro East Green Alliance, Piasa Palisades Group of the Illinois Chapter Sierra Club, La Vista CSA, The Alton Cluster of United Congregations of Metro East, Wellington Avenue United Church of Christ, Citizens Against Ruining the Environment, Sangamon Valley Group of the Illinois Chapter Sierra Club, Central Illinois Healthy Community Alliance, Heart of Illinois Group of the Illinois Chapter Sierra Club, Global Warming Solutions Group of Central Illinois, League of Women Voters of Greater Peoria, Central Illinois Chapter of the Interfaith Alliance, Greater Peoria Progressive Democrats, Peoria Families Against Toxic Waste, and Working Films.