Power plants monitor groundwater for coal ash contaminants

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The licensed landfill at Consumers Energy’s J.H. Campbell Plant in West Olive covers 104 acres. Credit: Consumers Energy.


Capital News Service

LANSING — DTE Energy’s Monroe Power Plant produces more than half of the coal ash in Michigan.

The plant near Lake Erie is among the state’s 29 coal ash sites and one of 17 that a nonprofit environmental watchdog group says have polluted nearby groundwater with toxic substances like arsenic, lead, lithium and sulfate.

The nationwide report – disputed by Michigan utilities – comes from the Environmental Integrity Project, a nonpartisan organization of former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) attorneys, public interest lawyers, analysts, investigators and community organizers.

For example, it said cobalt, molybdenum and sulfate are at unsafe levels at Consumers Energy’s D.E. Karn plant in Essexville, while high levels of arsenic, beryllium, cobalt, lithium and sulfate are in the groundwater at its J.C. Weadock plant in West Olive.

Coal ash at DTE’s Monroe plant raised levels of lithium and sulfate in groundwater to three times the level deemed safe by the EPA, the report said.

However, it’s impossible to show that the Monroe plant is responsible for elevated levels of lithium and sulfate without comparing them to background levels of those contaminants in nearby groundwater, said Robert Lee, a manager in DTE’s environmental management & resources group.

DTE determined background levels by monitoring nearby groundwater levels and didn’t find an increase in pollution, he said.

The utilities say the report lacks important context and draws conclusions it cannot support, said Eric Younan, a DTE senior communications specialist.

The report found occurrences and levels of pollution the utilities and state didn’t find. Some differences can be traced to differing interpretations of the federal law that governs coal ash monitoring.

In other cases, like that of the Monroe plant, lead author Abel Russ said the report cited elevated levels of groundwater contamination, even if it wasn’t possible to attribute it to a plant under the strict parameters of the federal rule.

Michigan regulates coal ash as a solid waste, said Margie Ring, the state solid waste engineering coordinator at the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy.

“All the plants in Michigan that have disposal areas are working their way through the process, both under the federal and the state regulators,” Ring said.

The DTE Energy Monroe Power Plant in Monroe produces about 40 percent of electricity needed to serve southeast Michigan. Credit: DTE Energy

DTE Energy

Lee said it makes sense that the Monroe plant contributes half of the coal ash produced in the state because it’s one of the country’s largest power plants. Like other coal-burning plants, it produces two types of ash.

The heavier and granular material, called bottom ash, is moved out of the bottom of the boiler with water, Lee said. Fly ash, a fine substance from emissions, is caught before it leaves the plant and is transported to disposal sites with water.

Younan said there’s a fly ash disposal impoundment and a dry fly ash landfill at the plant. Another impoundment holds bottom ash.

Lee said monitoring wells installed around the landfill ensure that it doesn’t leak, “We know that the water we discharge out of the impoundments back to the surface water meets state and federal limits. We know that’s safe, too.”

Ring said DTE complies with its ash disposal permit. “They did put in monitoring wells and do the sampling and they didn’t find any impacts from the site.”

Consumers Energy

The state’s other large utility, Consumers Energy, operates two active coal-fired power plants that are being closed in West Olive and Essexville, said senior public information officer Roger Morgenstern.

Consumers is closing two coal-fired units at Karn in 2023. It will close two units at Campbell in 2031 and the third remaining unit in 2040.

Consumers is working within state rules and regulations to take all the coal ash now stored in ponds to licensed landfills at Campbell, Karn and J.C. Weadock to licensed landfills, Morgenstern said. There are three ponds at Campbell and one pond each at Karn and Weadock.

“There is evidence of elevated levels of coal ash residuals in groundwater at some of the pond locations,” Morgenstern said. “We are in the process of dewatering these ponds, removing the materials and landfilling the materials in licensed landfills.”

The ponds are primarily in industrial areas and none is near a public drinking well system, he said.

Ring said state regulators have reviewed the company’s closure plan and how it addresses groundwater issues.

Clean up

The Michigan Environmental Council, which issued its own coal ash report, says even landfills with clay barriers can leach pollution into groundwater. A synthetic liner is safer.

“Ideal world: we would love to see all the unlined coal ash impoundments closed and the coal ash removed,” said Charlotte Jameson, the council’s energy policy and legislative affairs director. And while federal regulations allow some coal ash to remain in place if covered, she said all coal ash should go to impoundments with impermeable, synthetic liners.

Younan said DTE’s clean-up plan involves disposing of ash from the bottom ash impoundment at a licensed landfill. “We will dewater, cover and cap the fly ash impoundment, and we will cover and cap our dry fly ash landfill.

And Morgenstern, of Consumers, said it costs millions of dollars to engineer the landfills, haul ash to them and monitor groundwater, “but we are committed to Michigan and the environment. It’s a very capital- intensive process to do this and to do it right.”

In Essexville and West Olive, Consumers plans to continue recycling and landfilling coal ash in landfills, Morgenstern said, with a portion of the ash to be used in road-building materials

“We think we have a good plan in place that protects the groundwater,” he said.

The Michigan Environmental Council’s Jameson said the possibility of a coal plant improving its surrounding environment depends on how “better” gets defined.

“There are ways that they can clean up coal ash waste, remove it fully from the site, remove contaminated sediment,” she said. Then the site could provide space for new businesses or solar energy generation, but Michigan’s utilities aren’t yet fully committed to this full cleanup, she said.

She also said the threat to drinking water is unclear.

“Michigan’s done a poor job of mapping groundwater aquifers and mapping contaminated plumes of groundwater,” and nobody knows exactly how contamination spreads in the groundwater near coal ash landfills.

Gina Navaroli writes for Great Lakes Echo. Andrew Blok contributed to this story.

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