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Michigan State U Must Be Greener Than Spartan Deep

My favorite aunt became a dean at Michigan State back in the early 1980’s. She was a role model for us all, assuming a level of power and influence that most women—especially African American women—had not been able access at that time. She, like many other students and faculty at the time, enjoyed the campus and resources it provided. But what she didn’t know was that the water that she drank, bathed in and used for cooking and cleaning and cleaning, may have been poisoned by toxic coal ash.

Last month, members of the Clean Energy Now Coalition, an alliance of nearly 50 environmental groups in Michigan aimed at educating citizens about the benefits of using clean, renewable energy, exposed the historical use of coal ash at Michigan State University and the dangers it poses to the health of students, faculty, and neighboring communities.

MSU’s “Bridge to the Future"
(Tom Taylor / Clean Water Action)

Led by Nic Clark, MSU alum and Executive Director of Clean Water Action in Michigan, Joyce Stein, RN from the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments and MSU student and president of the university’s Beyond Coal Campaign, Callie Bruley, the Coalition urged the school to shut down its coal plant, the nation’s largest coal burning plant on a university, and properly dispose of over 90,000 tons of coal ash. The ash was discovered six years ago when the university broke ground to build a new underpass nicknamed, “The Bridge to the Future,” designed to help traffic flow more freely on campus. But instead of workers excavating dirt and gravel, what they found was 200,000 tons of coal combustion waste. That’s the equivalent to 1,000 elephants, 100,000 SUVs, and over 1.4 billion iPhones.

Michigan State stored a sizeable chunk of the coal ash in two safely lined municipal landfills in the Watertown and Dewitt Townships, both within 20 miles from campus. However, nearly half of the waste went through what Michigan calls “on-site relocation,” a process that allows a facility to move waste materials from one contaminated area of the site to another similarly contaminated area on the same site. In other words, pursuant to Michigan law, instead of cleaning up over 90,000 tons of this toxic waste safely and permanently, the university just passed the poisoned buck from one location to another. At a press conference, Nic Clark said:

Simply moving dangerous coal ash from one site to another contaminated site on campus … is not being ‘Spartan Green’ [the university mascot]. The university needs to properly dispose of this material in a way that best protects East Lansing and Michigan State University students.

Tests found dangerous levels of arsenic, mercury, and silver, designating the site a “brownfield”—a small, urban tract of abandoned commercial or industrial property contaminated with hazardous waste. Further testing showed high levels of chromium and selenium in the ash that exceeded state clean up criteria, as well as toxic levels of boron, copper, lead, lithium, barium and zinc.

MSU's T. B. Simon Power Plant is the nation’s largest coal burning plant on a university.
(Michael P. Kube-McDowell)

The Coalition’s press conference this month made clear that the university’s irresponsible disposal of this toxic coal ash, ostensibly done to save money, is not saving the health and well-being of its students, the surrounding community or the verdant grounds that make the university beautiful and the state golden, but potentially sacrificing it. Local efforts to uncover the dangers of coal ash pollution are gathering steam throughout the country. Coal ash is a problem not limited to Michigan, and until the EPA adopts federally enforceable safeguards for proper coal ash disposal, more communities will be exposed to the deadly toxins in coal ash.

About the Earthjustice Blog

unEARTHED is a forum for the voices and stories of the people behind Earthjustice's work. The views and opinions expressed in this blog do not necessarily represent the opinion or position of Earthjustice or its board, clients, or funders. Learn more about Earthjustice.