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Carbon neutrality and legacy coal ash problem

By Stacy Gittleman

Coal ash contains heavy metals such as mercury, barium, cadmium, and arsenic. According to the National Resources Defense Council, short-term exposure to coal ash irritates the lining of the nose and the throat and causes dizziness, nausea, vomiting, and shortness of breath. Long-term exposure can lead to liver damage, kidney damage, cardiac arrhythmia, and a multitude of cancers.

Yet the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has yet to classify it as hazardous waste. Without proper management, coal ash can pollute waterways, groundwater, drinking water and the air, but it has only been regulated at the federal level since 2015.

The question – and the cost – of how to safely dispose of coal ash, most of it languishing for decades in unlined landfills, looms large.

According to 2018 reports from the Energy Information Administration, Michigan’s operating coal-fired electric plants generated over 1.5 million tons of coal ash waste.

Using coal for energy in Michigan is on the decline. According to a 2011 report prepared by the Michigan Public Service Commission, Michigan’s coal-burning power plants in 2009 generated 66 percent of the state’s electricity. By 2019, that number had dropped to 32 percent.

In Michigan, these pits of coal ash rest along the shorelines of our tributaries, rivers and lakes. That’s because massive amounts of water are required to heat into steam to turn a plant’s turbines to produce electricity. Most wet coal ash impoundments are dug directly into the ground, which sit adjacent to waterways, and are constructed and contained within simple earthen berms.

Earthjustice, which compiles and updates a database on the condition and status of the nation’s coal ash ponds as reported to the EPA since 2015, reported that in Michigan, there are 30 known coal ash repository sites, some with multiple coal ash impoundments. Of those, 14, including lined landfills, remain open and active even though some of the coal-fired plants there have been decommissioned.

They include: DTE’s Belle River (scheduled for closure in 2029); Erikson Power in Lansing (set to retire in 2023); Consumers Energy's JC Weadock plant in Essexville (retired in 2016); Consumer’s Energy JH Campbell in West Olive (set to retire in 2040); and DTE’s Monroe Power plant (set to retire in 2040). There are also active coal repositories at the WE Energy Ash landfill, Marquette’s Shiras ash pond (the plant closed in 2018), a bottom ash basin at DTE’s St. Clair (set to retire in 2029), and a coal combustion residual landfill at the Trenton plant, which DTE retired in 2016.

The remaining 16 sites have reported that they have already closed or intend to close their plants and deactivate their coal ash and bottom ash basins at the following locations: the BC Cobb in Muskegon (closed in 2016); D.E. Karn Generating Plant in Hampton Township (closing units in 2023 and 2031); James DeYoung in Holland; JB Simms (deactivated in 2020); JC Weadock Generating Plant in Hampton Township (retired 2016); JH Campbell Power Plant in Port Sheldon Township (units scheduled to retire in 2031 and 2040); JR Whiting Power Plant in Monroe (retired in 2016); as well as DTE’s coal operations in Monroe, River Rogue, and St. Clair.

All utilities, except for four unlined coal ash ponds at the JH Campbell Power Plant, plan to move coal ash from unlined impoundments and transfer the waste to in-state lined landfills as licensed with Michigan Environment Great Lakes And Energy (EGLE). As climate change causes coastal waters to rise along the Great Lakes and with rainier weather, environmentalists insist that these cleanup operations happen sooner than later, as coal ash must stay as dry as possible so its minerals and heavy metals do not leach out.

Coal ash is stratified into different gradients of density including fly ash and bottom ash.

There is fly ash, which is powdery and flour-like and constitutes nearly half of the waste generated by coal plants. Fly ash is recyclable. The fine particles bind together and solidify, especially when mixed with water, making them an ideal ingredient in concrete and wallboard. About 37 million tons of coal combustion products are beneficially used in the United States each year. But more than 81 million tons are still being disposed of in landfills, according to the American Coal Council.

Bottom ash is a coarse substance collected from the bottom of furnaces. About 30 percent of bottom ash can be re-purposed and recycled for snow and ice control, as a road base, structural fill material, or a raw feed material for some cement. DTE officials interviewed for this article confirm that across their coal operations, it recycled 59 percent of its coal combustion residual materials in 2019, and 57 percent in 2020.

What is pulling the issue of coal ash into focus are a few things.

First, the EPA is putting some teeth back into a 2015 coal combustion residual law that was loosened under the Trump administration. Former President Trump gutted many of the law’s stipulations and allowed the nation’s remaining coal plants to slide on deadlines for filing closure plans or submitting groundwater reports on a timely basis.

Secondly, at the state level, recent reports from environmental watchdog groups such as Earthjustice and 2018 and 2021 reports on coal ash from the Michigan Environmental Council conclude that based on groundwater monitoring data from 2017-2019, there is widespread groundwater contamination under most of the state’s coal ash ponds. The reports, based on publicly accessible data submitted by utilities to the EPA according to the federal coal combustion residual rule, demonstrated that most coal ash ponds were leaking chemicals, especially arsenic.

In January, the EPA acted to enforce the 2015 coal combustion residual ruling by proposing decisions on requests for extensions to the current deadline for initiating closure of unlined coal ash impoundments and put several facilities on notice regarding their obligations to comply with coal combustion residual regulations. The agency also outlined plans for future regulatory actions to ensure coal ash impoundments meet strong environmental and safety standards.

Along with the announcement, EGLE Director Liesl Clark stated that Michigan must responsibly manage its waste generated by decades of dependence on coal for electricity

“Michigan is advancing efforts to reach our state’s goal of a carbon-neutral economy by 2050,” Clark stated in an EPA press release from January 11, 2022. “We support EPA’s ongoing efforts to provide clarity around the coal combustion residuals rules and to ensure that our world-class freshwater resources and the drinking water they provide are not impacted by these legacy wastes.”

The Trump administration gutted much of the coal combustion residual rulings in favor of coal-fired utilities, giving them ample extensions on reporting testing of groundwater and creating coal ash repository closure plans. But with this announcement, the EPA reversed course and determined that four of 52 of the nation’s utilities demonstrations submitted were incomplete, one was ineligible, and the rest were complete. None of the utilities denied extensions were in Michigan.

Earthjustice, along with the Sierra Club and the Environmental Integrity Project, maintains a comprehensive and regularly updated database on the CCR plans submitted to the EPA that documents coal ash and bottom basin and landfill operation plans, plant closure plans, and groundwater testing results.

Lisa Evans, an Earthjustice attorney specializing in hazardous waste law, said the EPA’s actions and statements on January 11 were highly significant. When the law was first enacted, Evans said the original wording of the CCR rule put the onus on the coal utilities to self-comply with little to no oversight given at the federal level. In general, this tactic has been ineffective.

“No regulatory agency at either the federal or state levels had the specific responsibilities to enforce the coal combustion residual rules, and the EPA expected that the utilities would self-monitor,” said Evans. ”As a result, what we have today is widespread non-compliance. Under the 2015 law, states are not required to have state inspectors going out to the sites to see if they are complying … and because they didn’t have to, almost no states did.”

Evans continued: “For the first time, the EPA initiated enforcement action at numerous sites (by not extending compliance deadlines), and they made it very clear how the coal combustion residual rule was to be enforced. Although the EPA up until now has not acted considering the hundreds of coal plants currently operating around the country, the January announcement will have an impact on those coal plants because it just clarified what compliance will look like.”

But environmentalists say the current law could use even sharper teeth. As the law is written now, a utility does not need to manage, account for, or take data on any coal ash dumps it operated and closed before the coal ash rule took effect in 2015 – and environmentalists argue that this creates a large loophole for 25 percent of the nation’s coal ash repositories that closed before 2015. If a utility can prove that elevated levels of contaminants, such as heavy metals, are emanating from ponds not covered by the 2015 coal combustion residual rule through a groundwater test known as an Alternative Source Demonstration, the utility is still under compliance with the law and is not under the obligation to treat or remediate the pollution.

By ignoring a large subset of coal ash dumps, some environmentalists fear the Coal Ash Rule will allow some groundwater contamination to continue indefinitely. This makes the restoration of groundwater quality at most sites very difficult or even impossible to achieve.

Abel Russ is a senior attorney with the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Integrity Project and was the lead author on the organization’s 2019 study that concluded that 91 percent of U.S. coal-fired power plants with monitoring data are contaminating groundwater with unsafe levels of toxic pollutants. Russ said his organization fought the original coal combustion residual laws in a Washington D.C. circuit court because they feel the laws don’t go far enough and there is overuse of the alternative source demonstration rule.

“Many utilities have been using this stipulation in the coal combustion residual law to the point that some contend that certain levels of elements such as arsenic, lead and cadmium are not coming from the coal ash pits that fall under the 2015 law,” explained Russ. “And that's a problem because often the other sources are just another unlined coal ash that does not require to be regulated because one of the biggest problems is the federal rule and then it only applies to ash landfills and ponds that were active as of 2015. If you have a landfill that closed in 2010, or 2012, or even going back to 1980 or earlier – when a utility analyzes an active ash pond, they can conclude that any detected elevated contaminant level can be coming from another pond that is not regulated, so they will conclude that no action needs to be taken.”

But will all this coal ash leachate harm our drinking water supplies, especially if it makes its way through the groundwater or falls directly into the Great Lakes?

Russ said yes, but it is going to take a long time before any direct damage would be evident.

He explained that the EPA estimates that leachate of some of the contaminants found in coal ash would take between 70 and thousands of years to travel from an unlined landfill at a concentration that would impact drinking water. And leachate that would slowly leak into the Great Lakes would be greatly diluted and would not surpass the EPA’s thresholds to make the water unsafe to drink.

Still, Russ said, now is the time to prevent such threats to future generations.

“One of the reasons why the Environmental Integrity Project has been so concerned and enthusiastic about this problem is that it goes underneath the radar,” Russ said. ”While it’s true that not many people live so close to coal utility plants or have a drinking water well that is in danger, there someday may be a situation where pollutants are getting into a smaller lake and working their way up the food chain and making fish unsafe to eat.”

Russ added that lower-income populations go fishing as a food source and may fish in areas downstream from a coal plant.

He could not directly comment as to whether Michigan is handling its coal ash legacy better or worse compared to other states.

“In general, most states do about the same (in terms of managing coal ash waste) and that is not very well. Most states are overwhelmed by the scale of the problem. This involves millions of tons of solid waste and complicated testing and modeling required to fix groundwater contamination issues. While some states have up-front rules requiring moving coal ash to lined landfills like North Carolina, Virginia, Georgia and South Carolina, the rest of the country hasn't gotten there yet. That means there is going to be many places where coal ash will be sitting in groundwater for a while.”

Nicholas J. Schroeck, director of the Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law, echoed many of Russ’s sentiments. He said that industry and government have known for decades the harmful health effects of coal ash, and he believes stalling the creation of a federal rule was more about economics and the powerful coal lobby that has been influential with both federal and state legislatures. What it boils down to is a long avoidance of common sense and scientific evidence.

“The regulations are finally catching up with the science,” Schroeck said. “It’s only been in the last few years that we had any meaningful regulations regarding coal ash. Without those coal combustion residual regulations at the federal level, we were also missing the data that demonstrated the extent that contaminants from these unlined holding areas were seeping into the ground and surface water.”

Schroeck said the 2015 federal ruling standardized utility groundwater testing, though he finds the alternative source demonstration stipulation concerning. The bottom line, he maintained, is that whether a utility can prove elevated levels are directly coming from the vast acres of unlined ponds or basins that may or may not fall under the coal combustion residual regulations, coal ash is a substance that must be properly handled and disposed to prevent groundwater contamination.

“These regulations are a step forward, but we must recognize that there are still a lot of sites that do not fall under this law, and until they are all completely secured, and all the coal ash is prevented from coming into contact with ground or surface water, coal ash will still pose a risk,” he noted. “Ultimately, there will be a lot less coal ash to contend with if we are serious about transitioning to renewable energy. That is one of the advantages of wind and solar energy.”

In April 2021 the Michigan Environmental Council (MEC) released The Impact of Coal Ash on Michigan’s Water Quality. The comprehensive report was based on publicly available data submitted by utilities to the EPA as required by the 2015 coal combustion residual ruling. The report concluded that 77 percent of coal ash landfills or ponds in Michigan were leaking levels of toxic chemicals like arsenic and lead in the groundwater above state or federal water standards.

The report revealed especially alarming levels of arsenic that were 52 times over federal drinking water standards at the Consumers Energy D.E. Karn Generating Plant’s bottom ash pond in Essexville. Samples from three out of five down gradient wells at the Consumers J.H. Campbell bottom ash ponds in West Olive had arsenic levels that were 4.5 times over drinking water safety levels.

Charlotte Jameson, program director of energy for the MEC, and one of the authors of the report, said her organization’s main criticisms of the current coal combustion residual rules is that it allows for significant data gaps with the alternative source data testing, and if a utility had closed an unlined coal ash pond or bottom ash basin ahead of when the 2015 rule took effect, it is not obligated to collect or provide data or remediate any possible pollutant that can emanate from those areas.

For example, Jameson said the report shows that after 2017, DTE has not provided any further groundwater tests for heavy metals because the utility contends that the clay deposits that make up the walls of its coal ash ponds are dense enough to hold any leachate away from the groundwater. There is no post-2017 data about the presence of heavy metals leaking from coal ash sites at Trenton Channel, Belle River, St. Clair, and all but one impoundment at Monroe. Furthermore, no heavy metal monitoring data was available from the Lansing Board of Water and Light’s Erickson plant impoundment system.

“We do not believe the data the utilities are filing with the EPA is inaccurate. It is just incomplete. And though we can conclude that there is no imminent danger to our drinking water from improperly disposed coal ash, that’s not to say it will not be a problem in the future if there are incomplete data sets or mapping of all the state’s coal ash ponds and groundwater systems,” Johnson said.

She continued: “I think it's understandable why the EPA included in their coal combustion residual rules alternative source demonstrations. After all, these are highly polluted sites, and contamination could be coming from places other than the coal ash ponds that fall under the 2015 law. But too often, the alternative sources of contamination are the legacy impoundments that were closed before 2015. We need to have watchdog groups like Earthjustice and the Environmental Integrity Project, who are laser-focused on these alternative source demonstrations and understand the hydrology, to make sure the findings in these alternative tests are indeed accurate and not just an attempt on the utilities to get out of having to do additional monitoring or a necessary cleanup.”

When asked whether coal utilities should have continued to have flexibility and extended deadlines in submitting their coal ash pond closure plans to the EPA, Jameson said the utilities should have long ago read the writing on the wall.

“They knew what was coming,” responded Jameson. “Coal plants are going away. It's not a question of if, but when. Utilities have known about the coal combustion residual rules for years. If they are saying they're still unprepared at this point but knew at some point they’d have to close their leaking impoundments and were just getting by hoping to get a deadline extension, that’s poor planning on their part.”

Though Michigan has not yet had a catastrophe from its coal ash ponds, other states have seen the darkest side of coal’s legacy. Several disasters prompted the EPA, along with several lawsuits filed by environmental organizations, spurned the coal combustion residual laws in the first place.

In 2008, the retaining wall at a coal ash pond at the Tennessee Valley Authority Kingston Fossil Plant ruptured and released 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash, contaminating the Emory River channel. The spill decimated the surrounding area, buried houses and killed wildlife. Over a decade later, it still sickens or has killed many of the cleanup workers, with some dying of ailments ranging from leukemia to brain cancer. The Kingston incident is regarded as the largest industrial spill in the nation’s history.

In 2014, a coal ash pit managed by Duke Energy ruptured and spilled more than 39,000 tons of toxic coal ash and 27 million gallons of untreated ash pond water into North Carolina's Dan River, which supplies water in North Carolina as well as Virginia. It took a week to stop the spill. The sludge caused 70 miles of the river to turn into a thick chalky grey-brown mess that killed wildlife.

The incident prompted North Carolina to pass the nation’s strictest laws regarding coal ash management. The statute, which took effect September 20, 2014, mandated that all ponds in the state would be closed by 2029, effective October 2014, any new coal ash ponds were banned and continued use of ponds at closed power plants is prohibited. By the end of 2019, all power plants had to be converted to the disposal of dry bottom ash or shut down. The law also required that coal ash pond owners identify any residential wells within half-mile down gradient of the site, identify which wells need to be sampled, and pay for the sampling.

The MEC report recommended that EGLE and the state legislature should require utilities to report groundwater monitoring data for toxic heavy metals, and insists the state agency should thoroughly evaluate findings from alternative source demonstrations. It also recommended that EGLE and the EPA should completely restore groundwater conditions directly affecting lower-income communities.

Responding to the report, Margie Ring, EGLE’s state solid waste engineering coordinator, said the state’s environmental authority has taken some of the MEC’s suggestions into consideration. She said EGLE is working with the state’s biggest coal ash polluters to complete site assessments and take corrective action to stop any potential impacts on groundwater.

“A few of the sites under investigation were later shown not to have impacts to groundwater as a result of the coal ash storage or disposal impoundments, but if the coal ash remains in place, they are still monitored by EGLE,” Ring explained. “If the ash has been removed, and the groundwater or surface water has not been impacted, the facilities are clean closed and are no longer subject to regulation under the coal ash regulations. “

Ring explained the state has had coal combustion residual regulations in place since 1979 and the agency has worked closely with the EPA since it enacted the coal combustion residual ruling in 2015. EGLE in 2018 helped enact a state law further regulating coal ash disposal, essentially codifying the 2015 federal coal ash rules to grant EGLE an enforcement and oversight role which the agency had previously not had over coal ash disposal.

“In addition, we are seeking EPA approval of our permit and licensing program and are also moving ahead with clean-up and closure plans of both active and closed sites in Michigan,” said Ring. “We have yet to calculate a dollar figure on the costs to move coal ash from ponds to landfills. It would depend on a variety of factors, including whether it is taken to a commercial landfill or a utility-owned facility. The cost will be paid by the utilities. Most utilities have included these costs in their rate structures over the years, so much of the cost has already been factored into the rate-payers costs.”

Ring explained under the state’s 2018 solid waste law, coal utilities by 2020 either had to close operations and remediate the site or come under the program’s licensing program. Ring said EGLE is working with the federal government to best coordinate discrepancies between state and federal rulings to assure that utilities are adhering to state and federal laws.

“We have been regulating coal ash landfills and surface impoundments where waste was intended to remain in place for over 40 years in Michigan,” explained Ring. “At the sites where groundwater contamination was detected, we have put remedial and corrective actions in place, such as containing the contaminated plume. We have done that at several sites around the state, and still have several active impoundments we will be closing in the next few years.”

In contrasting views between EGLE and environmental organizations, Ring would not describe alternative source demonstration testing as a loophole mechanism intended to let utilities off the hook for contamination. She explained that the testing wells are positioned to test water before it flows underneath the ash pond and after it exits the site to measure for any differences in water quality.

“We also look at the character of the contamination,” she continued. “Just because contamination is coming off-site from another source, it doesn't mean that there hasn't been a contribution from that facility. EGLE would evaluate the entirety of the situation. If there was a contaminated plume coming off a site, we would want to identify the source and deal with what is causing the contamination.”

Ring said though EGLE was conducting some investigations, she was not aware of any significant contamination emanating from coal ash ponds that are impacting drinking water supplies.

With plans to cut carbon emissions by 50 percent by 2030 and 80 percent by 2040, DTE has closed many of its last coal-fired electric plants, some ahead of schedule. The River Rouge Power Plant retired in 2021, St. Clair and Trenton Channel coal power plants will be retired later in 2022, and the Belle River Power Plant will stop burning coal by 2028.

In the next seven years, DTE Senior Communications Strategist Eric Younan said the company expects to spend approximately $140 million on closing and cleaning coal ash ponds across its facilities, and transporting the waste to its state-licensed landfills, which undergo a license renewal process every five years. The utility has already begun to account for these costs. Additionally, Younan said that EGLE inspects all its coal ash storage facilities every quarter to ensure they are protective of public health, and impoundments have also been regulated for decades under the Clean Water Act and state-issued water permits.

One of the last coal plants that will close in Michigan is DTE’s Monroe Power Plant. It is the state’s largest and accounted for 56 percent of the 1,439,200 tons of coal ash generated annually in Michigan. The MEC report noted that the plant’s most recent well readings around its bottom of ash, fly ash and landfill exceeded safety levels for boron, chloride, calcium, and sulfate, and there were no data records on heavy metal levels.

Monroe comprises 400 acres and sits adjacent to a 200-acre peninsula that juts into Lake Erie. The site is also bordered by Plum Creek near LaPlaisance Creek. Its bottom ash pond was constructed in Lake Erie by taking a low area of the lake and building up an earthen dyke to separate the holding pond from the lake. There are no impervious liners to separate the coal ash waste from the groundwater or the nearby lakes and rivers.

With Monroe slated to close by 2040, Younan explained that Monroe’s bottom ash basin will close in 2023 and will comply with the specific regulatory timelines to complete the closure of landfills and impoundments.

Contesting the MEC’s findings that DTE is submitting incomplete data, Younan explained the utility has installed groundwater monitoring wells around every coal ash impoundment unit that falls under the 2015 coal combustion residual law and their data records are complete according to state and federal law.

“Where we disagree with the MEC findings is that we sample groundwater every six months, submit those results to the EPA and the data is available publicly on the agency’s website,” Younan asserted. “Our groundwater plans have been approved by the state as part of operating licenses. And those plans not only say what we're going to test and how we test it, but they also say what you do with those results to make sure that there are no problems.”

“The bottom line is, we don’t have any leaking landfills or impoundments at Monroe,” emphasized Robert Lee, DTE Manager of Environmental Strategy. ”We have been adhering to state coal ash regulations for 40 years. We did have an issue with the River Rogue Power Plant, as we detected contamination around one of the bottom ash basins very early on when we began testing in 2015 following the EPA rule. We were not sure the contaminants were coming from the bottom ash basin, but we were extremely proactive in addressing the contaminants in the groundwater, which was contained, collected and treated.”

Lee contends that MEC has misinterpreted the data from the monitoring groundwater wells, which he said is consistently collected and reviewed in adherence with state and federal laws.

“If you look at that data in a vacuum or out of context, you can try and reach your conclusions,” he said. “We have shared our concerns with the MEC on their findings and this is public knowledge. But outside the contaminants detected at River Rogue, we do not have any leaking contaminants impacting ground or surface waters. We stand behind our reports and the plans the state has approved.”

Consumers Energy’s coal ash ponds have also received scrutiny. The Environmental Integrity Project in 2019 reported elevated and unsafe levels of cobalt, molybdenum and sulfate in ponds at the D.E. Karn plant, which sits next to Saginaw River and Saginaw Bay on Lake Huron. The organization also reported high levels of arsenic, beryllium, cobalt, lithium, and sulfate in groundwater around the defunct J.C. Weadock plant that sits along the Saginaw Bay shoreline.

Consumer’s largest coal plant is the operating JH Campbell Plant in West Olive. It produces 14 percent of the state’s coal ash. Its 2019 records show it increased its coal ash production from 199,000 tons to 204,000 tons. It is slated for partial closure by 2031 and full closure by 2040.

The coal plant sits just thousands of feet away from the Pigeon River and one mile from Lake Michigan. The utility has repeatedly reported runoff exceedances for antimony, boron, lithium, and selenium into ground and surface waters, though drinking water sources have not been threatened.

Groundwater reports from 2020 submitted to the EPA state that contamination is being managed through coal combustion residual management procedures, including groundwater remediation technologies. Consumers permanently capped pond A in October 2019, and continues to monitor groundwater conditions around the site according to state and federal coal combustion residual rules.

Pond A was closed and capped in October 2019, yet the pond is still unlined. The landfill is slated for a 2040 closure with the ash to remain capped in place.

In a written statement, Linda Hilbert, executive director of Environment, Sustainability,and Laboratory Services at Consumers, said that the utility has complied with state coal combustion residual regulations since 1978, and none of its plants are near any sources of drinking water, such as residential wells or intakes. Hilbert wrote that the utility has monitored groundwater around its sites since the 1980s and said that closing unlined ponds and landfills will ultimately improve water quality.

“In June 2021, Consumers Energy filed a proposal to end coal-fired electric generation at all company locations by 2025 as an update to its Clean Energy Plan,” wrote Hilbert. “This clean energy transition plan will help Michigan’s environment by reducing carbon emissions, reducing emissions of criteria pollutants, and reducing water usage and coal ash waste from our system each year. As Consumers Energy is transitioning away from coal as a fuel source for electricity, we remain committed to safely and permanently closing coal ash ponds while meeting or exceeding all federal, state, and local regulations. “

Hilbert stated that Consumers Energy has closed all its unlined surface impoundments at coal-fired generating complexes ahead of federal requirements. Coal ash landfills supporting coal-fired generation will close as complexes are decommissioned.

Derrell Slaughter, Michigan Clean Energy advocate of the National Resources Defense Council who sits on Whitmer's Council on Climate Solutions, said Consumers is moving in the right direction.

“Many of these coal ash reserves are located near Black and indigenous people of color communities who have borne the disproportionate brunt of health problems as a result,” said Slaughter. ”The best-case scenario would be for the utilities to quickly move ahead with plans to transfer the coal ash unlined impoundments to licensed and lined landfills.”

Though Consumers maintains that elevated levels of contaminants are not threatening drinking water around the JH Campbell plant, there has been some seepage into surrounding lakes and tributaries. Slaughter said this problem is echoed throughout the state, especially in downriver and western Michigan, where poorer communities live, work, recreate and fish.

“Many of these areas around coal plants have populations who maybe in the past could not move away or put up a fight. Or, they were unaware of the hazards coming from coal ash,” said Slaughter. “Now, folks are waking up and forcing these utilities to do something about it. It may have taken a long time, but we are fighting simultaneously to put coal in the past while addressing the past’s coal pollution.”

DTE’s Younan is quick to point out that Monroe sits amidst the vast Detroit International Wildlife Refuge – a 6,000-acre wildlife and wetlands preserve. Nature enthusiasts flock to the area to observe the array of species, from the amphibious box turtle to expanding numbers of Eastern fox, owl, and pelicans. Nearly every year (save for cancelations caused by the pandemic), DTE partners with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to let a limited number of nature enthusiasts get a closer observation of the increasing numbers of American bald eagles that nest in and around the plant’s facility.

Younan said that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service takes blood and feather samples from egrets. Because eagles sit at the top of the food chain, if there were evidence of contaminants leaking from coal ash impoundments, it would show up there.

“We have an understanding of Lake Erie based on what's in the blood system of these eagles,” said Younan. “The groundwater is safe because (the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) has not found any problems. These eagles are thriving because the lake is thriving with fish to feed them. It is a testament to the fact that industry and nature can both prosper together.”

But environmentalists like Russ from the Environmental Integrity Project contend that what is not seen at the surface or in the air is lurking below. It is only a matter of time before leachates of coal ash that remain in unlined pits dug right in the embankment of Lake Erie do their damage.

“One of the problems of coal ash is that you often don't see the problem because it's underground,” explained Russ. “Most of the contamination is still sitting in the coal ash ponds waiting to slowly seep into the groundwater if enough of the coal ash comes into contact with water. The ponds themselves are toxic to wildlife, and the EPA has made that clear.”


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