Report: Waste from coal-fired plants threatens Michigan water safety

(Susan J. Demas|Michigan Advance)

By Anna Gustafson, Michigan Advance

Michigan’s coal-fired power plants are annually generating more than 1 million tons of waste that’s laden with lead, mercury and arsenic and poses significant dangers to the health of residents and the state’s groundwater and surface water, the Michigan Environmental Council said in a new report released Tuesday morning. 

“The storage of coal ash in unlined pits has caused toxic chemicals to leach from the coal ash into our groundwater, in some instances to alarming levels above health and environmental protection standards,” Michigan Environmental Council (MEC) Energy Program Director Charlotte Jameson said during a press conference announcing the results of the organization’s report, “Impacts of Coal Ash on Michigan’s Water Quality.”

While Michigan utility companies have been shuttering coal plants in recent years, including in Holland, Marquette and Muskegon, they remain heavily reliant on coal, Jameson said. In 2018, the most recent year for which there is data, coal fueled the largest share of Michigan’s electric generation — about 32%. 

DTE Energy, in particular, is “heavily reliant” on coal generation, with close to 60% of its energy coming from coal-fired power plants, the MEC report states. DTE officials said that number is inaccurate and that a little less than 50% of its energy is coming from coal plants. DTE officials noted that the company will shutter three of its five remaining coal plants by next year and will be coal free by 2040.

The nine coal plants in Michigan that reported waste generation information to the federal Energy Information Administration created about 1.5 million tons of coal ash in 2018, with DTE Energy’s Monroe coal plant accounting for 56% of the coal ash created annually, the MEC said. DTE said the Monroe plant will be closed by 2040 at the latest.

Coal ash was not regulated by the federal government until 2015, which the MEC said has translated to shoddy ash storage facilities that have allowed for groundwater contamination and other public health concerns. Coal ash is typically stored in landfills that each cover, on average, about 120 acres, and what are known as “ponds,” or storage spaces often spanning some 50 acres, according to the MEC. Most of these facilities are located along Great Lakes shorelines and their waterways; a full list of the sites can be found here.

This waste produced by the coal plants is particularly concerning when considering the dangerous heavy metals in the ash, such as arsenic, lead and mercury, according to Casey Patnode, a medical and public health student at the University of Michigan.

“When these enter the body — when they’re eaten, ingested or inhaled — these toxic heavy metals can cause cancer and nervous system impacts, such as cognitive deficits, developmental delays and behavioral health problems, which is especially dangerous for children and infants,” Patnode said during Tuesday’s press conference. “These health impacts last a lifetime.”

Patnode added that the heavy metals in coal ash can also cause heart damage, lung disease, respiratory distress, kidney disease, reproductive problems, birth defects, impaired bone growth in children and more. 

And, he noted, exposure to coal ash doesn’t just happen in the immediate vicinity of a plant or storage site.

“The dust from coal ash disposal sites can travel by air and have severe impacts on the health of the surrounding community,” he said. 

A review of groundwater monitoring data from 2017 through 2019 shows “there is widespread groundwater contamination under the majority of coal ash ponds in Michigan,” the MEC report states. A review of 2018 and 2019 data shows that 80% of 15 coal ash disposal sites had levels of toxic chemicals, such as arsenic and lead, in the groundwater above state or federal water standards. 

The MEC cited “especially concerning” groundwater contamination at a coal ash storage facility at Consumers Energy Company’s DE Karn plant in Bay County, with one monitoring well reading arsenic levels at 42 times the federal drinking water standard. The DE Karn coal plant is expected to close by 2022. 

Consumers Energy did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The MEC report also cited concerns about Marquette’s Shiras holding pond, which stored ash from a coal plant that closed in 2018. At the Shiras site, there were registered lead levels close to 60 times higher than the state’s drinking water standard, according to the MEC. A monitoring well at Consumers Energy’s ash pond at the JH Campbell plant in Ottawa County reported arsenic levels at 5.7 times the federal drinking water standard, and a monitoring well at the DTE River Rouge bottom ash basin read arsenic levels at 17 times the federal standard, the MEC said.

Eric Younan, a DTE senior communication strategist and Robert Lee, a manager in DTE’s environmental management and safety, took issue with the MEC’s report, with Lee saying that the company has no issues with groundwater contamination from coal ash.

“We don’t agree with the findings” of the MEC report, Lee said.

Younan said while the numbers are accurate with the River Rouge basin, they don’t tell the whole story.

“At River Rouge Power Plant, low levels of arsenic were detected in groundwater on the plant property,” Younan wrote in an email. “Drinking water has not been impacted, and there is no public health risk. We have proactively addressed any potential concern of shallow groundwater around the bottom ash impoundment at the River Rouge Power Plant through a groundwater collection system that is actively collecting groundwater and preventing any possible movement of groundwater from the site.”

“Furthermore, aside from the impoundment at the River Rouge Power Plant, our coal ash units are protected by a thick glacially compacted natural clay liner system that prevents any release to groundwater,” Younan continued. “We also perform regular inspections and third-party professional engineers inspect our sites annually for safety and stability.”

When DTE shutters a coal-fired power plant, Lee said the company removes all of the ash at the facility and takes it to one of the company’s licensed landfills. DTE then reports to the federal government that “all the ash is gone” and documents “the groundwater is clean,” Lee said.

Younan also noted that DTE will shutter all of its coal plants by 2040 and is increasing its “renewable investments,” such as with wind and solar generation.

Leaders at MEC said they hope policymakers use this report to make sweeping changes to coal ash storage and monitoring in the state, and to use it as a further catalyst to entirely eliminating coal plants in Michigan.

“The clear impacts of coal plant pollution on our climate, groundwater and surface water creates an urgency to speed up closure of aging coal power plants and replace those sources of energy generation with clean, renewable energy like wind and solar,” Jameson said. 

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