EDITOR’S NOTE: We want this article to be the first of many about issues related to coal-fired power plants in our area. We encourage citizens, scientists, government officials, environmentalists and anyone else with information or concerns about these issues to contact us to share what they know – and to help us ask the right questions. One of the beauties of the Internet is the “wisdom of the crowd.” You know as much or more than we do about these concerns, so please help us make this a dialogue and not a monologue.
Earlier this year, I was awakened by the throaty sound of bulldozers and trucks behind my house. I live on the Grand River, at the northern edge of where the water turns back on itself, almost cutting the City of Lansing in half. After a little investigation, I learned that the Lansing Board of Water and Light (BWL) is currently conducting a $3million coal-ash cleanup project nearby.
When our family first moved there in 1979, I remember hiking across the river, curious to see what was on the other side. I found an ash dump. A very big one. The place used to be a gravel pit back in the 1950s. Back then, when MLK was called Logan and long before any bridge spanned Grand River, neighborhood kids on Lansingâ€™s far northwest side would hike over to that “beautiful spot” on a hot summer day to enjoy a cooling swim or to fish. Older kids would show up at night for partying.
That swimming and partying came to an abrupt end about 1964, when BWL began filling up the gravel pit with coal ash residue from its now-defunct Ottawa Power Station and possibly from one other power plant. BWL is now spending millions to excavate and remove the coal-ash dumped there inÂ the past.
Coal ash is one of the many forms of residue left over after you burn coal. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, coal ash is a toxic mix of chemicals such as arsenic, cadmium, selenium and mercury, even uranium if the coal is from western states. Itâ€™s not something you would want left lying around, but thatâ€™s exactly what has happened in Lansing and hundreds if not thousands of other sites across the nation.
There are currently 584 impoundments that store coal ash in 35 states, and the vast majority of the sites are not only unmonitored, they have no systems in place to keep the waste from leaking into groundwater. Studies by the Environmental Protection Agency found that toxic elements in coal ash can leach into drinking water at concentrations that far exceed federal safety standards. In 2007, the EPA estimated that some residents who live near unlined ash ponds run a risk of cancer from arsenic contamination as high as one in 50 â€” a level 2,000 times greater than the EPA’s threshold for acceptable risk.” – Rolling Stone, Coal’s Toxic Sludge.
Fast forward to today when BWL is celebrating its 125th anniversary, while spending the next two years digging up and re-burying that dirty little secret from its past.
In an e-mail response to questions we posed about BWL’s on-going coal ash removal, the company confirmed that it is currently excavating and relocating 438,000 cubic yards of toxic coal ash from that remote gravel pit alongside the Grand River, which served as a dumping ground for coal ash from about 1964 to 1978. (Map supplied by BWL.) I care because I live nearby, and only recently have I become informed about how dangerous coal ash can be.
Coal isn’t clean yet
The Ottawa Street Plant has since closed. Today, BWL continues to operate the coal-fired Moores Park steam generation plant, built in 1919, as well as two coal-fired electric-generating plants, the downtown Otto Eckert Power Station completed in the mid-1950s, as well as the Erickson Station on Canal Road in Eaton County, built in 1973, according to the BWL website.
BWL Director of Communications Mark Nixon and BWL Environmental Services Technician Fritz Domres took me on a walking tour of the site, but they did not offer an explanation of why the Board had decided at this time to begin the costly removal and reclamation process.
Not on most environmentalists’ radar
Environmentalists have long been concerned about pollution from coal, but the emphasis has been on air quality. Back when BWL was dumping coal ash in what was once the popular neighborhood swimming hole, there was little or no regulation for disposal of the mixture. In reality, there still isnâ€™t, though the Environmental Protection Agency is reportedly moving to end that oversight. According to Tiffany Hartung, a Moving Beyond Coal organizer at the Sierra Club of Michigan, the proposed rules should be issued soon, though they may face a lengthy approval process.
The Iowa Independent recently reported that state lawmakers are calling for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources to issue its own rules because the federal Environmental Protection Agency has been so slow in issuing theirs. Hartung said one rumor about the proposed rules is that coal ash would be identified as a â€œhazardous substance,â€ which would mean enactment of stringent removal, storage and monitoring requirements.
By the time the rules are likely to go into effect, BWL will have removed the ash from the 30-plus-acre former gravel pit, which was up to 28 feet deep in some places before being filled in. And frankly that isnâ€™t a bad idea, from an environmental and a business standpoint.
A growing national concern
Lansing is not alone in dealing with legacy coal ash sites. Communities across the country are making plans for proper removal and reburial at certified dump sites that prevent runoff and groundwater contamination. Fortunately for BWL, the nearby Granger Landfills have licensed areas, or “cells,” certified to accept the toxic material.
The problem of coal ash disposal recently garnered headlines:
- New York Times (Coal Ash Spill Revives Issue of Its Hazards),
- the Rolling Stone (Coal’s Toxic Sludge) and
- a major feature in the Huffington Post (Even the Cows Have Cancer: EPA Weighs Tougher Regulation of Toxic Coal Ash).
The articles focused on the December 2008 coal ash spill in Tennessee, where a dam broke allowing millions of cubic yards of coal ash sludge to pour into a nearby River and onto adjacent land. The current BWL cleanup site never posed a threat comparable to the Tennessee disaster, because it is belowground, while the Tennessee site is aboveground. However, questions remain about whether there has been significant runoff into the Grand River and area groundwater during the past 60 years. (In March, Lansing Online News requested results from water-quality testing, but we have yet to receive any documentation.)
During the walkaround, BWL officials pointed out two nearby water wells that have been closed. In e-mail answers to a series of 30 questions we posed to BWL, their response was that the company â€œhas not abandoned any of its wells based on their proximity to the coal ash site.â€ (However, BWL did not say why the wells were closed.)
BWL also said that “a variety of water testing has occurred at the site,” and groundwater testing from shallow water sources was performed, indicating sulfate and trace metals exceeding Part 201 Residential Drinking water cleanup criteria (see below). A follow-up email to BWL requesting an opportunity to examine their records has not been granted. BWL did not identify any trace metals or, if they exist, whether they exceeded proscribed levels.
BWL has already taken action to protect groundwater from coal ash contamination at another site, this one in north Lansing, which was identified in a 2007 Environmental Protection Agency report as a site where there was â€œprovenâ€ damage to groundwater. An article in Michigan Messenger cites an EPA report that says lithium, manganese, potassium and strontium were found to have moved outside the borders of the landfill, and lithium was found to be in excess of levels considered safe.
In 2008, Lansing Capital Gains reported that BWL spent $4.6 million excavating a 80-100 feet deep trench around the site on Lake Lansing Road. The article goes on to say BWL then injected a slurry that hardens into a barrier around the entire site. Although this is a common fix, some environmentalists question whether this approach might later allow leaching, since the barrier is like a bowl with the bottom cut out. When asked, Sierra Club’s Hartung said, â€œI think we disagree [about the fix].”
BWL also confirmed that it has one more coal ash disposal site, at the Claude R. Erickson Power Station just off Canal Road in southwest Lansing, which is an aboveground site. In 2009, BWL responded to a request from the EPA about various aspects of Erickson site. (Read the entire response here.) We continue to request information on what the site contains. When asked about any additional sites in the area, BWL did not identify any site near its downtown Otto E. Eckert facility. In its response toÂ the EPA the BWL confirmed that the site had not been inspected since it was constructed in 1973. BWL said it would inspect the site by August 2009, but we received no confirmation of that action.
Our difficulty in gathering comprehensive information about the status of BWL coal-ash disposal sites around Lansing reflects the fact that the potential for problems appears not to be on anyone’s radar. Calls to City Council Member Jessica Yorko, in whose ward the current cleanup is taking place, initially said that she knew nothing about the project. Again, environmental groups such as the Sierra Club have long been focused on air quality instead.
IÂ was a member of the River Forest NeighborhoodÂ Association in Â the mid-1990s whenÂ another nearby coal ash dumping site on the Grand River came to light as an excavation company began dumping fill dirt on the banks of the Grand River. Although the city of Lansing stepped in to stop the dumping after several meeting on the site, most of the coal ash had already been covered up by fill removed from a BWL construction site. In its e-mail response to our questions about the incident, BWL indicated it â€œhas no records or knowledge that property north of the Grand River was utilized in the past for LBWL ash disposal.â€