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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 accu