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Celeste Flores Calls Out U.S. EPA for Proposing Federal Coal Ash Roll Backs Amid Global Pandemic

In spring of 2020, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed rollbacks to the federal coal ash rule. This rule is known as "Part B" and was established in 2015 under President Obama. Perhaps more egregious than the Trump Administration's proposed rollbacks is that the EPA only provided two virtual hearings for comment with very short notice. These two hearings occurred on April 7th and April 9th from 9:00 AM to 6:00 PM. Celeste Flores, Lake County Outreach Director, testified at the April 7th virtual hearing. This is her prepared statement.

Good Morning,

My name is Celeste Flores; I am the Lake County Outreach Director for Faith in Place and Co-Chair of Clean Power Lake County (CPLC). I was born and raised in Lake County. I work in Waukegan, which is home to five of the thirteen superfund sites in Illinois. I am calling today on behalf of 703,462 Lake County residents, the third most populous county in Illinois, to speak out in opposition to EPA’s proposal to weaken the 2015 coal ash rule safeguards.

While I appreciate this opportunity to comment, I strongly oppose EPA’s decision to proceed with today’s hearing during a global pandemic and national health emergency. By refusing to delay today’s hearing, this agency is knowingly and willingly turning its back on the communities it has been tasked to protect. Rather it allows corporations to destroy the health of those living and working near coal ash. So often, the effects of exposure are not immediately visible. In Environmental Justice communities like Waukegan, Illinois, they are cumulative with the crippling effects of exposure becoming apparent decades later.

Celeste Flores testifies at Congressional EJ hearing.
Celeste Flores testifies at Congressional EJ hearing.

Celeste is a tireless advocate for the Lake County community. In November 2019, she testified in front of U.S. Senate Democrats' Special Committee on the Climate Crisis led by our Illinois Senator, Tammy Duckworth.

The proceeding today also eliminates a critical right of the public to meaningfully participate in rulemaking and directly address the EPA on this issue. This agency should pause this process immediately and provide a chance for the public to participate when this pandemic is over. Community members in Waukegan are literally dealing with life and death situations due to this pandemic. This agency's blatant disrespect to proceed shows how disconnected y’all are from the reality of impacted communities.

This is not the first time this agency has failed to allow direct community engagement. In January, the EPA violated the law by not holding even one in-person public hearing on this same proposal. The only type of hearing available to the public to address concerns about the proposed coal ash rollbacks was a virtual public hearing. This limits participation to those with internet access.

NRG subsidiary Midwest Generation owns and operates the Waukegan Generating Station, on the shore of Lake Michigan. Originally built in 1923, the plant is one of the oldest in the country and remains the largest source of air and water pollution in Lake County.

Those orange streaks are what coal ash looks like when it leaches into our waterways. This image was taken on the Middlefork of the Vermillion River—Illinois' only National Scenic River.

In addition to two unlined ash ponds, the property has a large, unlined coal ash landfill immediately west of the ash ponds to which the coal ash rule does not apply. One of the wells that Midwest Generation has designated as upgradient, MW-09, is located within the footprint of the onsite ash landfill, and almost certainly shows contamination from the landfill.

Through contamination from the coal ash landfill and possibly the ash ponds, groundwater at the Waukegan site is unsafe, with dramatically elevated concentrations of multiple coal ash pollutants including arsenic, boron, chromium, lithium, molybdenum, and sulfate. Monitoring at the site has revealed extremely high concentrations of arsenic and chromium in one upgradient well, MW-14, which may be affected by coal ash and other sources of contamination. Arsenic levels in this well are hundreds of times greater than the groundwater standard, and chromium is up to 48 times above the standard. Other pollutants are directly related to coal ash contamination: boron, lithium, molybdenum, and sulfate, which all exceed safe levels by large margins.

CPLC and Faith in Place advocates pictured on the beach in 2015 with the Waukegan coal plant in the background.
CPLC and Faith in Place advocates pictured on the beach in 2015 with the Waukegan coal plant in the background.

Our community has been advocating for a just transition plan for the coal plant including proper removal of the ash from those two ponds as well as from the old, unregulated coal ash landfill at the site. This ash will continue to pollute Waukegan’s groundwater and leech into Lake Michigan, the drinking water source for Chicago and many other cities and towns—for centuries to come.

It is critical that the 2015 coal ash rules are not to be rolled back at all. This agency should be working towards making all rules stronger. This proposed rule would gut critical protections that were put in place to safeguard community members from exposure to carcinogens that do irreparable damage not only to our health but also our source of drinking water.

Communities across the nation rely on the protection of the EPA. Stand with the community and our wellbeing, not with polluting industries. Our health must be considered when this agency is considering any proposal that weakens guidelines and standards.

Thank you for your time and I invite you to come to visit us in Waukegan to see firsthand not only coal ash but every toxic chemical that we live with on a daily basis. Would you swim in a body of water that has nuclear waste, coal ash, and several carcinogens?

First Presbyterian Church of Libertyville's members with CPLC members posing in front of the old Waukegan Coal Plant owned by NRG Energy during a driving tour in 2019.

First Presbyterian Church of Libertyville's members with CPLC members posing in front of the old Waukegan Coal Plant owned by NRG Energy during a driving tour in 2019.

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Yumi Vega
Yumi Vega
08 nov 2022

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