8 November 2011

Coal Ash in Lake Michigan

Posted by John Freeland

View of Lake Michigan over the dunes at Sleeping Bear Point Trail by Kerry Kelly. (WikiMedia Commons)

Last week saw a coal-ash landslide at the Oak Creek power plant near Milwaukee, and congressional action that would allow a car ferry to dump coal ash in Lake Michigan. Both incidents raise questions about regulatory and permitting processes.

Full disclosure is in order here. To minimize bias, scientists are supposed to be disinterested (not uninterested) in their subjects. I love Lake Michigan. For a kid who grew up in the “Rust Belt-Corn Belt” midwest, Lake Michigan was (and still is) really something special. I don’t like to see it used as a dump.

As for Monday’s WE Energies landslide south of Milwaukee, Dr. Dave Petley posted timely reports here and here, and linked to a good set of photos at the online Milwaukee Journal Sentinal (MJS). Thermo-electric power plants need a lot of cooling water, hence their location on the big lakes. Aside from the tall smoke stacks, these power plants are mostly out of sight. The MJS photo set gives a clear view of just what they are and how close they are to the shore.

The landslide debris contained coal ash used to fill a ravine some fifty years ago. A more complete inventory of lost items, including vehicles, is underway. Floating booms have been deployed and environmental contractors are skimming fuel off the lake.

What triggered the landslide? The site was under construction to update stormwater and air pollution control facilities.

An article by MJS points to lax oversight by Wisconsin regulators. An excerpt:

The Public Service Commission’s 2008 decision approving the project said the agency determined the $900 million pollution control project at the original Oak Creek coal plant was not a project that required either a detailed environmental impact statement or a less exhaustive environmental assessment.

An environmental study could have explored the potential impact of building a storm-water retention pond so close to an ash-filled lake bluff, said Jennifer Feyerherm of the Sierra Club in Madison.

“The whole point of one of these assessments is to identify things that could go wrong and try to mitigate them or decide if that risk is too big,” she said.

In my experience with environmental studies and permitting, geologic hazards in the midwest may be underestimated. Being on the stable craton, seismicity is low and we’re not used to having the ground giving way beneath our feet. The bluffs along Lake Michigan are an exception, though, where gravity and loss of shear strength can modify the landscape in a hurry.

SS Badger: Source WikiMedia Commons

In other news, three U.S. Representatives, all Republicans, slipped an amendment into a Coast Guard Reauthorization Bill that allows the car ferry SS Badger to continue dumping coal ash into Lake Michigan past 2012. The Muskegon Chronicle reported comments from two of the congressmen:

(Rep.) Huizenga said the amendment is an example of getting rid of federal government regulations that threaten small business. (Rep.) Benishek said it’s a way to block “overzealous” federal regulations from threatening the Badger.

The ferry operates for about 150 days per year and generates four tons of ash per day, for an annual ash disposal of 600 tons. Couldn’t a small business be hired to haul the ash away to a proper landfill, run by another small business?

For years, I’ve thought about making the 60-mile (97 km) crossing from Ludington to Manitowoc aboard the Badger, but the fares are too high. At current rates, our minivan and family of five would cost $327 for the four-hour boat ride.