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Burning coal causes more than air pollution. Updated report looks at coal ash contamination.

Lester Graham
Michigan Radio

Some coal fired power plants are being closed. Still, most of Michigan’s utilities heavily rely on coal.

“In 2019, coal still fueled the largest share of Michigan’s electric generation, about 32 percent. DTE Energy in particular is still heavily reliant on coal generation, with close to 60 percent (56%) of its energy coming from coal fired power plants,” Charlotte Jameson with the Michigan Environmental Council (MEC) said.

Credit Courtesy MEC
Charlotte Jameson is Program Director of Legislative Affairs, Drinking Water, and Energy at the Michigan Environmental Council.

She is one of the authors of an updated report on pollutants that come from burning coal.

Often, coal burning power plants are associated with the air pollution they emit. But after coal is burned, coal ash is left.

Coal ash dust can be carried by the wind for miles, contaminating land and water.

“Coal ash can also cause heart damage, lung disease, respiratory distress, kidney disease, reproductive problems, gastrointestinal illness, birth defects and impaired bone growth in children,” noted Casey Patnode, a medical and public health student at the University of Michigan.

Often the pollution becomes an environmental justice issue. Low income residents and people of color often live nearest the coal burning power plants.

Patnode says that’s on top of the air pollutants from the smokestacks and sources in some communities.

“Detroit’s asthma hospitalization rate, for example, is over three time the rate for Michigan as a whole. And the death rate for asthma for Black individuals in Michigan in general occurs at a rate of three-point-two times that of white people."

Credit Courtesy: MEC
A map of coal ash sites in Michigan.

When coal ash is stored in large ponds to keep it from blowing about, it contaminates the water in the impoundment. That water can get into groundwater. That means toxic heavy metals, such as lead, mercury, and arsenic get into the environment at sometimes unhealthy levels.

Often the storage sites are at the power plant sites which sit near water. In Michigan, that often means near a Great Lake or a river that leads to a Great Lake.

“Our review of 2018 and 2019 monitoring data shows that of the 15 coal ash disposal sites with publicly available heavy metal groundwater monitoring data, 80 percent of those had levels of toxic chemicals in the groundwater exceeding state and federal protective standards,” said Abby Wallace, co-author of the report and a policy specialist with MEC.

The authors note that many utilities are closing down unlined coal ash pits, but their two reports show no trend or progress in remediation of the groundwater that’s been contaminated.

“The storage of coal ash in unlined pits has caused toxic chemicals to leach from the coal ash into our groundwater, in some instances to alarming levels above health and environmental protection standards,” Jameson said.

As the coal ash pits are no longer needed to stay open, many of them are simply being capped while still leaching chemicals into groundwater.

Lester Graham reports for The Environment Report. He has reported on public policy, politics, and issues regarding race and gender inequity. He was previously with The Environment Report at Michigan Public from 1998-2010.
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