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Wednesday, March 7, 2018

I reported, NO ONE listened!

This story by Jason Morton that ran in 2009 after a flight with SouthWings. It was reported to ADEM, EPA and local environmental groups. No one took action. I was ignored in 2009. Today, the same site is in the exact same condition. Thank goodness someone is paying attention now. I seriously hope it isn't too little too late.

I found this article in the Tuscaloosa News archives and decided to re-post it since Alabama Power Co was just fined 1.25 million for what they have been doing and getting away with for years!


Environmentalist spots possible coal ash violations. 


McDuffie Island coal terminal. Coal dust floating out to sea.
In the past fiscal year, 18.5 million tons of coal passed through the Alabama Port Authority's McDuffie Island in Mobile Bay. This photo taken by environmentalist John Wathen shows a black swath around the island's southeastern point that could be coal ash. While the state Port Authority hasn't commented on the photo, Davina Marraccini, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said no one has a permit to dump coal on the ocean floor and that "someone really ought to file a report."
Coal ash in the Emory River
12/29/08 Photo by John Wathen, Flight by SouthWings
When tons of coal ash -- the toxic by-product that comes with burning coal for energy -- washed across acres of rural Tennessee in December, Tuscaloosa environmental advocate John L. Wathen went to see the devastation first-hand.
Appalled at what he found, Wathen last month began looking for danger signs at coal-fired power plants in Alabama to see if a similar disaster could occur. From the air, Wathen spotted conditions at two Alabama Power Co. plants that has him asking questions.
But it wasn't just the operations of a private corporation that he found upsetting.
Wathen suspects that the state of Alabama was allowing its own form of environmental harm -- not to its own lakes, rivers or streams, but to the Gulf of Mexico.
Coal dust flowing out from McDuffie Island coal terminal. 02/12/09


"We recognize that coal, America's most abundant energy resource, plays a critical role in meeting our country's growing need for affordable and reliable electricity," the coalition's Web site said. "Our goal is to advance the development and deployment of advanced clean coal technologies that will produce electricity with near-zero emissions."
Coal dust flowing out from McDuffie Island coal terminal. 02/12/09
In Alabama, that means reducing the estimated 37 million pounds of toxins produced by fossil fuel-based power plants in 2006, the most recent year that complete data was available, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Of these toxins, 7.3 million pounds came from the Greene County Electric Generating Plant in Forkland and the James M. Barry Electric Generating Plant in the town of Bucks in Mobile County, the EPA said.

Green Co Steam Plant blackwater discharge 02/29/09
At both of these plants owned by Alabama Power Co. -- a de facto member of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity through its parent corporation, Southern Co. -- Wathen found what he believes may be potential violations and hazards emanating from the plants' ash ponds.
Green Co Steam Plant blackwater discharge 02/29/09
Coal ash is the residue left over from burning coal. Coal plants scrub the ash off the inside of smokestacks, then deposit it into ponds of water, on the theory that the ash and its toxins -- mercury, arsenic, selenium, among others -- will settle to the bottom of the pond and thus cease to be an environmental hazard.
"Mercury is one of the more serious toxins that affects humans and it's found in all coal at some levels," Wathen said. "It's going to be long-term. This ash situation is just now coming to light."
According to the EPA, both the Greene County and Barry steam plants have been in some form of non-compliance with the Clean Air Act in each of the past three years, and both have violated their respective discharge permits at least once.
The Alabama Department of Environmental Management does not have a long list of rules pertaining to coal ash at the nine facilities in the state that produce it.
Essentially, all the agency says is that none of the coal ash is allowed to flow freely out of the pond.
"We closely monitor the volume of material [in] the ponds," said ADEM spokesman Jerome Hand.
Coal ash concerns





At the Greene County site, Wathen took aerial photos that show what appears to be the mixing of the plant's ash pond with a wetland on the other side of the pond's earthen dam.
"There's not a lot of difference, from the look of it, from that material in that ash pit and the material in that wetland," Wathen said. "That is not a healthy wetland. This stuff is perking through that dam."








While no scientific studies have yet been conducted on Wathen's findings, he filed a formal complaint with ADEM based on what he saw in Mobile County.

In that county, a large, dark finger of material curled into the Mobile River from the underside of a thin peninsula. On the other side of that peninsula is the Barry Steam Plant's ash pit.
"As you can see from that black water coming in from some of my photos, they're already discharging [into the river]," Wathen said. "Any failure of the ash pond dam is going to directly impact the Mobile River and all the fisheries below."
Alabama Power spokesman Pat Wylie said it was unclear what Wathen captured in his photos. Wylie said he doubted there was any danger because the company had performed reviews of all its coal ash pits following the Tennessee disaster.
Wylie said the dark spots on Wathen's images could be anything, including areas of deeper water that, when viewed from the air, appear dark.
Still, an Alabama Power Co. investigator is looking into the dark trails curling into the Mobile River.
Wylie said incidents like the coal ash pond break in Tennessee have caused all power companies to re-examine their own practices. One change already implemented is an annual inspection of the ash pits, instead of the two-year timetable the power company previously used.
"And there's almost a daily look from the people who work on the site," Wylie said.
"Whenever something like that happens, a prudent business is going to look at their operations ...," Wylie said. "There are regulations that we have to adhere to in order to make sure we're not just wantonly harming the environment.
"It'd be hard to believe something negative is seeping into the water."
Gulf work
In the last fiscal year, 18.5 million tons of coal passed through the Alabama Port Authority's McDuffie Island in Mobile Bay.
The 556-acre island has been the entry and exit point for coal in Alabama since the mid-1970s, said port authority spokeswoman Judith Adams.
But exactly how long coal dust and bits of the carbon rock have been accumulating on the ocean floor is unknown.
While Wathen's aerial tour of Alabama coal facilities revealed a black swath around the island's southeastern point, Adams did not return a call seeking comment about those pictures.
"They have some of the filthiest stuff in the world dumped inside this bay," Wathen said.
Davina Marraccini, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said no reports of illegal dumping had been filed for that part of the ocean.
She also said no one had permission to be dumping coal on the ocean floor either.
"Anything discharged into ocean waters requires a permit ..." Marraccini said. "Someone really ought to file a report."
Two sides, one rock
Advocates of coal point to its benefits, including affordability, widespread use and developing technology that they say makes it cleaner and safer to burn.
According to the Alabama Department of Industrial Relations, coal mining also employed more than 1,300 people in Tuscaloosa County in fiscal 2007.
The largest coal-based employer in the county is Jim Walter Resources, which operates underground mines in Brookwood and others across the state.
Dennis Hall, spokesman for the company, estimated that almost 1,900 people work for Jim Walter Resources.
"Our coal is primarily used in the steel-making process," Hall said. "So anything made from steel owes its life to coal. Also, over half of all electricity in the United States is generated from coal. There are thousands of products made from by-
products of coal."
The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity emphasizes that technological advances have been made to reduce the amount of toxins the coal-burning process leaves in the atmosphere.
"The use of coal for electricity generation has more than tripled since 1970, while criteria emissions controlled under the federal Clean Air Act have been reduced by nearly 50 percent," the coalition's Web site said. "The industry is committed to reducing emissions even further -- including the eventual widespread capture and storage of man-made greenhouse gas emissions."
Critics of coal, however, highlight the liabilities, including the challenge of keeping toxins out of the air, ground and water of communities.
That threat became a reality on Dec. 22, when 5.4 million cubic yards of toxic coal ash, enough ash to cover 3,000 acres a foot deep, spilled from a retention pond at the Kingston Fossil Plant near Harriman, Tenn.
Photo by John Wathen, Flight by SouthWings
The devastation flowed at least 25 miles downstream, and arsenic levels in nearby waters spiked to more than 100 times the federally regulated amount.
Critics are becoming ever more vocal.
On the Web site of the Reality campaign, which released a new anti-coal commercial directed by directors Joel and Ethan Coen, viewers are hit with short, quick quotes -- many from the EPA -- pointing out coal's harm on the country and world.
The Waterkeeper Organization, an environmental advocacy group, launched TheDirtyLie.com, a Web site designed to expose what organizers call "the dirty lie" that is "clean coal."
"The coal industry and their lobbyists want you to believe coal is clean," is the first sentence on the Web site. "The truth is that coal pollutes our water, devastates our communities, forests and mountains, kills wildlife and contributes to climate change."
Wathen was in New York City for the Web site's launch party and said he was happy to see attention being paid to the issue.
He said he knows it will be impossible to completely cease using coal, but he said the country must be responsible about it.
"We have to have coal until we can convert to other energy sources," Wathen said. "So while we're waiting ... we need to find cleaner and better ways of taking care of the waste, getting it out of the ground and transporting it."
Reach Jason Morton at jason.morton@tuscaloosanews.com or 205-722-0200.

It's Not Enough but, IT'S ABOUT TIME!

Kingston Tenn., The Emory river 01/09/09 Flight by SouthWings
Dec. 2008,  Harriman Tenn. in a community known as Swan Pond, an antiquated coal ash pond collapsed sending more material debris into the river than all of the World Trade Towers debris in NYC as well as unsafe levels of heavy metals. Since then however, there have been other major issued discovered at many other facilities. This first major coal ash pond failure caused millions of dollars in damage to the environment, the local economy, and the peace of mind for millions of Americans living close to these ticking time bombs. (All aerial photos, courtesy of SouthWings)


Widow Creek power plant coal waste in the Tennessee. River
On the same day the photo above was taken I got a call from SouthWings saying that another pond had blown out farther downstream in Stevens Alabama, at the Widows Creek plant on the Tennessee River. I immediately jumped in another plane and was over the site before ADEM inspectors could get there. The owners, TVA claimed they had a leak in one of the drain pipes. That turned out to be false as most corporate notices about these events are. In Alabama ADEM seems to be intent in apologizing for and protecting the industry more than protecting the environment.

Widow Creek power plant
The "pipe" turned out to be a large overflow tube that had become clogged many years ago. Instead of properly sealing it, they simply covered it up and diverted the flow to another pipe. That also allowed them to raise the level in the pond. Unfortunately the clogged pipe let go after a heavy rain causing the other holding ponds to over top, flooding the tributary to the Tennessee River with Gypsum, also a byproduct of burning coal for energy. 
Widow Creek power plant coal waste in the river

After the Widows Creek blowout I decided to survey all of the coal fired power plants in Alabama and their coal ash ponds. What I found opened my eyes forever to the potential for major issues here in our state as well. Not only the potential for failure in the dikes and dams but a serious threat from chronic discharges of heavy metals such as Mercury from these ponds into Waterways of the US in large volumes. ADEM claimed there was no environmental impact to the ecosystem! Due to time restraints and fuel we were not able to survey all of the sites but what we found was alarming to say the least.

Miller and Gorgas steam plants are very close together in Walker Co.



Miller Power Plant
Miller is the newest and hasn't shown any visible signs of problems but many of the issues associated with coal ash are not visible but are just as serious a threat to our health. "Miller Steam Plant, on the Locust Fork of the Black Warrior, emitted more mercury in 2007 than any other coal-burning power plant in the country, according to EPA data compiled by the Environmental Integrity Project. Gorgas Steam Plant ranked 28th in this category (Total Mercury Pounds Emitted: 2007)." (Black Warrior Riverkeeper) 


Gorgas power plant
At the Gorgas plant I did find a black water discharge but it seemed to be coming directly from the plant and or the coal pile. The ash is stored across from the plant where it has to be pumped under the river into the pond. The ash laden water then flows back through the pond to the river in a "sub-surface diffuser". That is a pipe placed under the surface making it almost impossible to get accurate samples. Gorgas is one of the oldest plants left and has dumped literally tons of Mercury into the community over time.















Green County power plant
In Green Co. I saw what looked like a very similar scenario as in Swan Pond Tn. The ash pond is directly adjacent to the river bank with berms or dikes built up to hold more ash than the initial design. In the event of a catastrophic failure such as we saw in the Emory River (top photo) There is no hope for keeping the toxic soup out of the river. 


In this photo you can see the haphazard dikes constructed out of material that would not be approved in normal dam construction in all probability. In Kingston as well as Widow Creek the dikes or berms were constructed out of what's called "bottom ash". At the older plants like this one, that would contain some of the most toxic coal ash since it's been there well before the Clean Air Act. That was the law which brought in sophisticated "scrubbers" on the smoke stacks. 
On closer examination I saw the tell-tail streak of black water leaving the ash pond discharge

Leroy is not an APCO facility.
Traveling South We flew over the Leroy Plant along the Tombigbee River. It too is a fairly new facility and I saw no immediate issues there but once again there was the same scenario of coal ash storage too close to the river. Hopefully nothing ever does happen but if it does there's no stopping it from causing severe damage to the waterway, aquatic life as well as an economic disaster for commercial fishermen who use this stretch of river for their livelihoods. 

Barry Power plant discharges to Mobile River
The next stop was a real eye opener. Barry Steam Plant was, by far the worst discharges I saw all day from any power plant in the state. There was a long black tail of water coming out into the river and curling downstream. It was visible from a mile out and at about 2,000 feet elevation. 


The dark plume entering the river was mixing with the river water and flowing for a long distance downstream. In 2009, I reported this to ADEM (Alabama Department of Environmental Management), EPA and local environmental groups in the area but nothing was done. The power company mouthpieces claimed it was nothing and wasn't even coming from their facility. As usual ADEM accepted the company line and never took action. Recently they did fine the company 1.25 Million for 6 plants found to be in violation.  What about the last 10 years since it was first documented? Will they be held accountable for the true chronic nature of these discharges? No samples were taken, no report filed and no accountability since.

Shame on you Trey
If we are waiting for EPA or ADEM to hold them fully accountable it is a waste of time. When I first reported Barry it was under Trey Glenn's administration at ADEM. Trey was the past director but was under constant scrutiny and accusations for being far too friendly with APCO (Alabama Power Co.) He was even photographed at a baseball game sitting with APCO officials in the APCO private box seats. He was Trumps first pick for EPA region 4 director. We can expect no help from them. I am afraid it will take legal action in the form of Clean Water Act suits if we are ever going to see a serious effort to keep these polluters in line. $1.25 Million seems like a lot to some of us but to a company as large as Southern Co. (APCO) that is less than they make they a single day in all probability. Fines for such seemingly careless and chronic discharges should be high enough to cause real deterrent. 1.25 Million was for 6 plants. I truly believe it should have been doubled at least for each plant.

The reason for my post here is to point out the flawed and falling system for holding major polluters accountable. ADEM is funded, primarily by fees collected for permits. Most of any funds collected through fines is directed into the state "General Fund" and is not distributed back to ADEM for operating expenses needed to adequately patrol the thousands of pollution sites in the state. That is by design so that polluters who also contribute millions of dollars to corrupt politicians also hold the purse strings for our state agency who is here to enforce the Clean Water Act.

Mr. Glenn and other directors, including the current director, Lance LeFleur have stated publicly that it's not ADEM's job to enforce the Clean Water Act. ADEM's job is to issue permits. It is the exact definition of "The fox guarding the henhouse" in Alabama politics. That must change. We need to either change politics or change politicians soon!




Monday, December 5, 2011

The Power of Coal: Why People in Colstrip, MT Can't Drink the Water

"Wathen Said has tested the arsenic levels around the county and found levels as high as 0.840 mg/L. The legal limit is 0.1 mg/l. and protective steps need to be taken at 0.5 mg/l."


Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Bluff collapse at power plant sends dirt, coal ash into lake

Bluff collapse at power plant sends dirt, coal ash into lake

November 1, 2011
MJS MJS weenergies01 1 of hoffman.jpg WEENERGIES01 WEENERGIES01Milwaukee Riverkeeper, Cheryl Nenn was recently quoted regarding the recent bluff collapse, which sent coal ash into Lake Michigan.
[excerpted from JSOnline.com]
by Meg Jones & Don Behm.
Oak Creek - A large section of bluff collapsed Monday next to the We Energies Oak Creek Power Plant, sending dirt, coal ash and mud cascading into the shoreline next to Lake Michigan and dumping a pickup truck, dredging equipment, soil and other debris into the lake.
There were no injuries, and the incident did not affect power output from the plant.
When the section of bluff collapsed and slid from a terraced area at the top of a hill down to the lake, Oak Creek Acting Fire Chief Tom Rosandich said, it left behind a debris field that stretched 120 yards long and 50 to 80 yards wide at the bottom.
Aerial images show a trailer and storage units holding construction equipment tumbled like Tonka toy trucks and were swept along with the falling bluff in a river of dirt that ended in the water.
"This is definitely a freak accident," U.S. Coast Guard Lt. j.g. Brian Dykenssaid.
As a company hired by We Energies began cleanup in Lake Michigan, the utility confirmed that coal ash was part of the debris.
"Based on our land use records it is probable that some of the material that washed into the lake is coal ash," We Energies spokesman Barry McNulty said. "We believe that was something that was used to fill the ravine area in that site during the 1950s. That's a practice that was discontinued several decades ago."
The Environmental Protection Agency is in the process of developing stricter regulations of coal ash following a 2008 Tennessee coal ash pond washout that created a devastating environmental disaster.
No one was inside a trailer nor three box-like storage units that were sucked up in the mudslide, which also pushed a pickup truck into Lake Michigan and destroyed a temporary tool storage shed, We Energies spokesman Brian Manthey said. Some of the equipment was being used to dredge a storm water retention pond close to the lake.
Noting that about 100 construction workers were in the area at the time of the incident just after 11 a.m. Monday, Manthey said "we're very fortunate that there were no injuries reported." The construction workers are not We Energies employees.
Rosandich said contractors were taking an inventory of what exactly was lost in the mud slide.

Fuel sheen on lake

A fuel sheen covered the surface of Lake Michigan next to the plant Monday afternoon. Clean Harbors, the company hired by We Energies, will deploy 1,500 feet of linear boom on the water to contain the debris and fuel. McNulty said the weather forecast for Tuesday is favorable for cleanup of the lake.
The bluff failure was near a new air quality control system under construction. Following the collapse, authorities were testing the soil for stability as well as testing soil around the air quality control building under construction. Manthey said there was no danger of a further collapse.
Just what caused part of the hill to collapse was unknown. The National Weather Service office in Sullivan reported only 0.23 inch of rain fell at Milwaukee's airport Sunday and the only precipitation prior to that was a trace that fell on Oct. 27, meteorologist Ed Townsend said
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee geology professor Tom Hooyer said that based on aerial images of the site, seepage from a high water table is more likely the cause of the failure than erosion from the lake especially considering Lake Michigan is about 200 feet below the bluff site that failed.
Hooyer questioned whether the retention pond near the site of the collapse had a lining. If not, it's possible seepage from that pond could have loosened the nearby soil, he said.
Manthey said a storm water retention pond uphill from the mud slide is not lined.
Power continued generating at both the original and new coal plants. Because the pollution control equipment was not yet hooked up to the plant, the incident didn't affect operations at either plant, Manthey said.
Oak Creek's water utility was also not affected because the community's water intake pipe is two miles north of the power plant and one mile out into Lake Michigan, Oak Creek utilities engineer Mike Sullivan said. Oak Creek supplies water to residents of its city as well as Franklin and the northern half of Caledonia.
Oak Creek water utility officials were worried that the water pipes it uses to supply water to the We Energies plant might have been severed in the bluff collapse but Sullivan said that did not happen.

Debris flows south

Maureen Wolff lives in Caledonia about a mile from the power plant and can see the plant's smoke stacks from her home. She walked to the lakefront shortly after the incident and was dismayed to see lots of debris and wood floating south toward Racine. Because of the dark color of the debris, Wolff wondered if coal ash ended up in the lake.
"All this is going along the coast line and they're telling people all it is is just a few trailers and possibly some tools. No one is saying what exactly is in it," said Wolff, a Caledonia resident for more than 50 years.
Later Monday afternoon, We Energies confirmed that coal ash was likely in the debris.
A local environmental group leader said coal ash was disposed in multiple locations over the years, when environmental rules were much more lenient.
"We definitely want the environmental agencies and We Energies to study how much of that coal ash, if any, went into Lake Michigan because it does pose such a threat to human health and the environment," said Cheryl Nenn, Riverkeeper with the group Milwaukee Riverkeeper.
Wisconsin has more stringent coal-ash disposal rules than many states, Nenn said, but there are still concerns given the historic practices of ash disposal before the 1970s brought new environmental regulations like the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act.
"The (Tennessee) disaster in 2008 highlighted the need to have consistent regulations nationwide and more regulation as to where these things are stored, how they're monitored, and how closely they're put next to drinking water sources," Nenn said, noting Lake Michigan's role as a source for drinking water for more than 40 million people.
The air quality control system project under construction at Oak Creek is the second most expensive construction project ever undertaken by We Energies, with a price tag of $900 million. Construction began in 2008.
The project is adding scrubbers and other pollution control equipment to reduce the emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide.
The air controls will serve the original Oak Creek coal plant, which has four boilers that opened from 1959 to 1967. The original coal plant is just south of the new two-plant coal operation that opened earlier this year, at a cost of more than $2.3 billion.
During an investor conference call last week, company Chairman and Chief Executive Gale Klappa said the project was about 90% complete and was on time and on budget, with the new controls expected to undergo testing before completion in 2012.
In a report filed last week with the state Public Service Commission, We Energies said the air emissions control construction project had gone 2.4 million hours without a lost-time injury.
In 2008, We Energies hired the Washington Division of San Francisco-based URS Corp. to perform the engineering, management, engineering, procurement, construction and commissioning for the project. Known as Washington Group until it was sold to URS, the contractor did a similar pollution-control project on the We Energies coal-fired power plant in Pleasant Prairie several years ago.
URS Washington also built the new natural gas-fired power plant in Port Washington for We Energies, and a coal-fired power plant near Wausau for Wisconsin Public Service Corp.

 

Coal ash spills into Lake Michigan after bluff collapse


Coal ash spills into Lake Michigan after bluff collapse

Yellow highlighted area shows portion of a bluff, comprised of coal ash, in We Energy Oak Creek Power Plant that collapsed into Lake Michigan. Google Maps
Resulting dirt-coal ash mudslide extends beyond the length of a football field

By

A cascade of coal ash, dirt and mud fell into the shore of Lake Michigan yesterday after a large section of bluff collapsed beside the We Energies Oak Creek Power Plant in Milwaukee County, Wisconsin. It is unknown how much coal ash fell from the pile, but the spill left behind a debris field about 120 yards long, the Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel reports.
"Based on our land use records it is probable that some of the material that washed into the lake is coal ash," We Energies spokesman Barry McNulty told the Journal Sentinel. "We believe that was something that was used to fill the ravine area in that site during the 1950s. That's a practice that was discontinued several decades ago."
As iWatch News has previously reported , coal ash is the leftover residue from burning coal that is known to contain neurotoxins like lead and mercury and the carcinogens such as arsenic. In a series of investigations , iWatch News has examined the lack of federal oversight of the waste and its affects on communities near coal ash dump sites.
House Republicans championed legislation in mid-October that would strip the Environmental Protection Agency of its ability to regulate coal ash and give regulatory authority to the states — a move that would shift authority away from the EPA and reduce federal regulations that Republicans say are burdensome.The Obama administration has voiced opposition to the House legislation, calling it “insufficient to address the risks associated with coal ash disposal and management.”
The Lake Michigan spill is similar to a dam break at a Tennessee Valley Authority power plant in 2008, where 1.1 billion gallons of coal slurry was dumped across hundred of acres — killing nearby wildlife and damaging homes.
The cause of the Wisconsin bluff collapse is still unknown. None of the 100 or so nearby workers were injured in the spill, and clean-up has already begun. U.S. Coast Guard Lt. j.g. Brian Dykens called it a “freak accident.”

 

Tr-Ash Talk: Yet Another Coal Ash Spill

1 November 2011, 11:25 AM
Coal ash spills into Lake Michigan near Milwaukee power plant
Coal ash spill into Lake Michigan
We’re closing in on the 3-year anniversary of the TVA coal ash disaster and there are still no federal regulations in place protecting us from coal ash. And now, another spill: in Oak Creek, Wisconsin a bluff collapsed, sending coal ash and debris from We Energies Oak Creek Power Plant into Lake Michigan.
Writing this off as a “freak accident” or “mudslide” is a dangerous err in judgment. Coal ash has toxic levels of arsenic, hexavalent chromium, mercury, lead and other chemicals. Would you want that in your drinking water? No, and sadly, that is a reality to people who live near these sites in Wisconsin.
We’re still waiting on details from this spill (how many tons of coal ash, how far does it extend, etc.) and there are many questions. Maureen Wolff lives a mile from the power plant and walked to the shoreline shortly after the incident. She saw the dark color of the debris and wondered if it was coal ash.
“All this is going along the coast line and they’re telling people all it is is just a few trailers and possibly some tools. No one is saying what exactly is in it,” she is quoted saying in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
The power plant confirmed later that coal ash likely ended up in the lake, which is the drinking water supply for 40 million people.  Apparently there were no wells monitoring the coal ash fill, so we don’t know if heavy metals from the coal ash deposit have been polluting the lake even before the spill, and if these contaminants are flowing through groundwater to the lake now.  It is inexcusable for We Energies, who knew that coal ash was buried onsite next to an unlined pond, to fail to determine the stability of the fill site and its potential to contaminate Lake Michigan.
How many more spills before Congress and the Environmental Protection Agency take action to finally protect people from this toxic waste stream? Ironically, Wisconsin is sometimes referred to as “the gold standard” for states handling disposal of coal ash. Yet between this spill and the 13 documented cases of contamination from coal ash in Wisconsin, it’s clear that even the “best” state’s standards don’t always protect water quality.  This is why we need federal oversight to rein in this toxic waste and protect our drinking water and the nation’s invaluable water resources, like the Great Lakes.
The EPA has yet to release its coal ash proposal, but in the meantime the House of Representatives passed a dangerous bill that will fail to protect people from TVA-like spills  or continued contamination in communities across the country.
Wisconsin Representatives Ron Kind, Tammy Baldwin and Gwen Moore voted for this bill (seemingly to protect the interests of We Energies) despite the inadequate protections.  This spill reminds us that serving utility interests doesn’t serve even the basic public interest of protecting water quality.  And unfortunately we must wait as the Senate recently introduced the same toothless bill - S.1751).  We hope Senator Kohl and other coal state Senators will stand up to polluters, like We Energies, in light of this spill and oppose this bill or any other legislation that fails to protect public health and the environment.
We’ve got advocates coming in at the end of the week to meet with Senate staffers and EPA officials to fight for these much-needed protections. Clearly, we need these safeguards now more than ever.
A statement from Earthjustice attorney Lisa Evans:

Wisconsin coal-ash spill renews calls for federal rules

Wisconsin coal-ash spill renews calls for federal rules 

November 1,  2011 by Ken Ward Jr. Coal Tattoo


The site of a bluff collapse at the We Energies Oak Creek Power Plant in Oak Creek, Wis. is shown Monday, Oct. 31, 2011. A section of cliff the size of a football field gave way Monday at the southeastern Wisconsin power plant, creating a mudslide that sent a pickup truck and other equipment tumbling into Lake Michigan and swept several construction trailers toward the beach. (AP Photo/Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Mark Hoffman)
The latest news out of Wisconsin, via the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, is this:
A contractor for We Energies will begin skimming fuel and floating debris either later today or early Wednesday off the surface of Lake Michigan near the site of Monday’s mudslide at the Oak Creek Power Plant.
A boom in the lake forms a semicircle 1,500 feet long and extends about 100 feet from the shoreline, forming the area that will be skimmed first, We Energies spokesman Brian Manthey said at a Tuesday afternoon news conference.
A second, longer boom will be placed further out in the lake Wednesday to contain fuel and debris that might have been carried farther into the lake.
The contractor beginning Wednesday or later in the week will go onto the water south of the plant to look for debris that may have floated toward Racine County, Manthey said.
A separate contractor was to begin building a dirt berm on top of the hill where the mudslide began to prevent rain from washing additional debris down the slope and into the lake, Manthey said. Rain is forecast Wednesday and Thursday.
So far, details to give us a better idea of the size, scope and consequences of the coal-ash spill have yet to emerge. The Associated Press reported this afternoon:
A We Energies spokeswoman says the debris that washed into Lake Michigan this week during a sudden landslide likely contains toxic coal ash … No one was hurt, but a swath of debris the size of a football field swept toward and into the water. Spokeswoman Cathy Schulze says records of land use in the area suggest there was decades-old coal ash around. She said Tuesday she didn’t immediately have further details on how much coal ash may have spilled.
Despite the lack of details, the Sierra Club was out there before 9 a.m. today with a press release, in which Mary Anne Hitt, director of the group’s Beyond Coal Campaign, called the incident a disaster — not once, but five times:
The EPA has been trying to enact new protections to stop this kind of disaster from happening again, ever since the TVA disaster in 2008, and our do-nothing Congress has been blocking them every step of the way … This disaster in the Great Lakes is a tragic reminder of why the status quo is not good enough. As long as Congress interferes, disasters like this are going to happen, and dozens of communities are at risk … This disaster shows that states are not protecting our health and our environment from cancer-causing coal ash, and as long as the EPA fails to act there will be more coal ash disasters … This disaster is particularly troublesome because We Energies has known for years that its management of coal ash at this facility was a threat to human health.
For those who haven’t heard, the Milwaukee paper’s initial news story is the best discussion I’ve seen so far of what happened:
A large section of bluff collapsed Monday next to the We Energies Oak Creek Power Plant, sending dirt, coal ash and mud cascading into the shoreline next to Lake Michigan and dumping a pickup truck, dredging equipment, soil and other debris into the lake.
There were no injuries, and the incident did not affect power output from the plant.
When the section of bluff collapsed and slid from a terraced area at the top of a hill down to the lake, Oak Creek Acting Fire Chief Tom Rosandich said, it left behind a debris field that stretched 120 yards long and 50 to 80 yards wide at the bottom.
Aerial images show a trailer and storage units holding construction equipment tumbled like Tonka toy trucks and were swept along with the falling bluff in a river of dirt that ended in the water.

Here are before-and-after photos from the AP and from We Energies:





The Milwaukee paper explained:
As a company hired by We Energies began cleanup in Lake Michigan, the utility confirmed that coal ash was part of the debris.
“Based on our land use records it is probable that some of the material that washed into the lake is coal ash,” We Energies spokesman Barry McNulty said. “We believe that was something that was used to fill the ravine area in that site during the 1950s. That’s a practice that was discontinued several decades ago.”
The Environmental Protection Agency is in the process of developing stricter regulations of coal ash following a 2008 Tennessee coal ash pond washout that created a devastating environmental disaster.
No one was inside a trailer nor three box-like storage units that were sucked up in the mudslide, which also pushed a pickup truck into Lake Michigan and destroyed a temporary tool storage shed, We Energies spokesman Brian Manthey said. Some of the equipment was being used to dredge a storm water retention pond close to the lake.
Noting that about 100 construction workers were in the area at the time of the incident just after 11 a.m. Monday, Manthey said “we’re very fortunate that there were no injuries reported.” The construction workers are not We Energies employees.
Rosandich said contractors were taking an inventory of what exactly was lost in the mud slide.
So how bad is this?
Well, along with this football-field-sized debris field, the Milwaukee paper’s account described a “fuel sheen” in the lake and also reported:
Maureen Wolff lives in Caledonia about a mile from the power plant and can see the plant’s smoke stacks from her home. She walked to the lakefront shortly after the incident and was dismayed to see lots of debris and wood floating south toward Racine. Because of the dark color of the debris, Wolff wondered if coal ash ended up in the lake.
“All this is going along the coast line and they’re telling people all it is is just a few trailers and possibly some tools. No one is saying what exactly is in it,” said Wolff, a Caledonia resident for more than 50 years.
Later Monday afternoon, We Energies confirmed that coal ash was likely in the debris.
A local environmental group leader said coal ash was disposed in multiple locations over the years, when environmental rules were much more lenient.
“We definitely want the environmental agencies and We Energies to study how much of that coal ash, if any, went into Lake Michigan because it does pose such a threat to human health and the environment,” said Cheryl Nenn, Riverkeeper with the group Milwaukee Riverkeeper.
By this afternoon, the Sierra Club had backed off its “disaster” declaration, but was still referring to this “kind of disastrous spill” in a news release picked up by Daily Kos. Discussing the matter with me via Twitter, Mary Anne Hitt said she hadn’t seen any news reports yet that estimated how much coal ash might have been involved.

Not to diminish what’s happened in Wisconsin — and we still really don’t know much about how bad it is — but let’s remember that the TVA Kingston coal-ash spill involved more than 1 billion gallons of coal-ash slurry. Eventually, the Kingston spill flooded more than 300 acres of land, damaging homes and property, and toxic ash poured into the Emory and Clinch rivers, filling large areas of the rivers and resulting in fish kills.
There was also this Sierra Club statement:
This disaster is particularly troublesome because We Energies has known for years that its management of coal ash at this facility was a threat to human health. They have even been providing bottled water to neighbors who wells have been contaminated.
What’s not said there is that the water contamination problem appears to have been linked not to the coal-ash disposal in the specific area of this week’s spill, but at one or more nearby landfills. See page 525 of this Environmental Integrity Project report.

But in today’s news cycle, and with the polarized political environment, and the non-stop media world, it’s a lot easier to get our attention if you label something with a big word. AEP chief Mike Morris himself was just telling investors and analysts the only reason EPA was working on new coal-ash regulations was “a TV event at the TVA.” And it’s obvious that the House Republicans — led by West Virginia’s own David McKinley – are trying very hard to block EPA from taking meaningful action. (See here, here and here).
Still, there are some things that we do know, and that might be learned from the We Energies coal-ash spill, whether it turns into a “TV event” or not.
First, as Earthjustice coal ash expert Lisa Evans pointed out to me this afternoon, this incident is somewhat similar to a coal-ash landslide in January 2005 in Forward Township, Pa., when thousands of tons of land-dumped ash slid down a hillside, damaging nine homes and a restaurant, and despositing large amounts of ash into yards and creeks. Later, the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Register wrote a report outlining potential health concerns for residents of the community, especially children.
Second, it’s important to know that “structural fill” like the We Energies site is among the fastest growing use for toxic coal ash from power plants.  In 2009, more than 8.8 million tons of coal ash were used in fills and embankments, according to this annual report from the American Coal Ash Association.  And as Lisa Evans told me:
EPA’s proposed rules would consider large unconsolidated fill sites to be disposal, so going forward this type of fill would not allowed to be created and then left unmonitored. Also, under a subtitle C rule, utilities would have to identify all of their old disposal and fill sites pursuant to CERCLA. Through identification of these large deposits, regulatory agencies would have a fighting chance at finding those sites that may pose danger, either from leaching or instability. As the law stands now, we don’t know where coal ash has been buried. Thus these large deposits pose continuing threat.
Not for nothing, but the weaker Subtitle D rule favored by some? Here’s what Lisa Evans said:
A subtitle C coal ash rule would make coal ash subject to CERCLA 103 notification requirements, which would require utilities to identify the places where coal ash has been buried. All of them. True, regulators may not actually get to accessing the danger of all of these fills and disposal sites, but a location on a bluff, next to a lake, may be the type of site that would get their attention.
Subtitle D would not require such notification of old dump and fill sites.

Two construction trailers are hung up on the rocks just east of the We Energies power plant after part of a bluff south of the power plant collapsed, sending earth and construction equipment sliding toward Lake Michigan on Monday, Oct. 31, 2011 in Oak Creek, Wis. (AP Photo/Journal Times, Scott Anderson)