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Landslide leads to coal ash spill in Lake Michigan

Earlier this week, there was a landslide at a coal-burning power plant in Wisconsin. We Energies operates the plant. On their property, there’s a ravine next to a bluff on the shore of Lake Michigan. That ravine is filled with coal ash.

Coal ash is what’s left over when coal is burned to create electricity and it can contain toxic substances like arsenic, mercury and lead.

When the bluff collapsed on Monday, mud, soil, and coal ash spilled into Lake Michigan.

Barry McNulty is with We Energies.

“The vast majority of the debris including the soils and even coal ash, remain on land today. But a portion of that debris certainly spilled into Lake Michigan, which includes three vehicles, we believe, some coal ash, different soil from the bluff,” McNulty said.

McNulty said they don’t know how much coal ash got into the lake, but he said they are installing booms and using skimmers to clean up the spill.

The cause of the spill is under investigation.

“I don’t view it as a particular hazard. It’s not something obviously we want in Lake Michigan but it is not something that is a hazard to human health and the like,” added McNulty.

Coal ash is not currently listed as a hazardous waste by the Environmental Protection Agency. It is regulated... but it’s regulated in different ways by different states. The EPA has proposed tighter regulations on coal ash which could require liners on coal ash storage sites and groundwater monitoring.

Tiffany Hartung is with the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign.

“It is regulated less stringently than our household waste, yet it contains all of these hazardous materials: mercury, arsenic and other life threatening toxics,” said Hartung

Hartung said there are nine active coal-ash storage sites in Michigan... and another seven that are closed.

She said the Sierra Club is concerned about efforts in Congress that are attempting to stop the EPA from categorizing coal ash as a hazardous waste.

There are two proposals from the EPA.  One would regulate coal ash as a hazardous waste and the other would regulate it like household waste. The Senate is expected to take up the debate any day now.


Rebecca Williams is senior editor in the newsroom, where she edits stories and helps guide news coverage.