Coal ash has made its way back in the news again after a bluff caved in at WE Energies Oak Creek Power Plant releasing the hazardous waste into Lake Michigan. The collapsing bluff swept away trailers and other construction equipment leaving a debris field 120 yards long and 50-80 yards wide at the bottom. Unfortunately, it’s not just accidents that are resulting in coal ash polluting our waters. The Badger, Lake Michigan’s historical coal-burning ferry, dumps 4 tons of coal ash each trip it makes across the lake. Coal ash contains high levels of arsenic, mercury and lead but unfortunately has few regulations regarding its use.
The EPA is working on creating stricter regulations for coal ash use. Under EPA’s proposed regulations, large coal ash fill sites would be considered as hazardous waste disposal and would have to be identified and monitored. These kind of regulations are especially important for sites like WE Energies that have placed coal ash in or on unsteady ground. UW-Milwaukee geologist Tom Hooyer says “The bluffs along Lake Michigan are in constant recession. They recess a foot per year on average.”
WE Energies power plant site used coal ash as “structural fill” in the 1950s but unfortunately this haphazard process continues to be used today. According to the 2009 report from the American Coal Ash Association more than 8.8 million tons were used for similar projects. The proposed regulations would also transition the Badger from burning coal to oil.
Unfortunately, the House of Representatives have just passed a bill that would handcuff EPA’s ability to move forward with strong coal ash disposal safeguards for our communities and the same bill has been introduced into the Senate. Coal ash disposal is not simply an environmental issue but an important public health issue.