"Pure Michigan" Might Not be So Pure

Every year in Michigan coal plants produce more than 1.7 million tons of coal ash. In addition to the threats posed by unchecked coal ash storage sites, “beneficial reuse” provisions of Michigan law allow for coal ash to be used in trenches as construction fill or spread on agricultural fields.

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“Pure Michigan.”

That’s the ad campaign Michigan is using to entice travelers to visit the Great Lakes state. Whether it’s fishing, swimming, boating or just lounging on the beach. Michigan wants us to know that it’s a great vacation spot.

But what our friends at Clean Water Action in Michigan are showing us is that many of Michigan’s waters aren’t as “pure” as we thought. Coal ash has contaminated many Michigan waters, a silent threat to Michiganders health.

In the fourth part of our series leading up to the anniversary of the TVA spill in Kingston, TN, we hear from Nic Clark, state director of Clean Water Action, Michigan. Nic is a native of Michigan and is committed to protecting his home state from toxic coal ash and other pollution.

Michigan’s coal-fired power plants create a huge mess. Not only do these plants spew pollution into our air, they also produce millions of pounds of coal ash, which pollutes our water and puts our communities at risk.  We needed to know more about the threat from coal ash and find out what we could do to protect our communities. Our report, Toxic Trash Exposed: Coal Ash Pollution in Michigan, discusses the threat, outlines loopholes in state law that puts “Pure Michigan” at risk, and offers solutions to get this toxic mess cleaned up.

What we found was eye-opening. Every year in Michigan coal plants produce more than 1.7 million tons of coal ash. Coal ash is full of toxic chemicals like mercury, arsenic and lead. Environmental Protection Agency risk assessments have long shown that the dangers of coal ash pollution and the risks to human health and the environment are real. Still, there are no federal regulations, and weak state rules means that coal ash is less regulated than our household trash.

There are 29 known coal ash disposal sites in Michigan and 19 are within five miles of one of the Great Lakes. Several sit right on a bay of a Great Lake and every disposal site is on or near a lake, river, stream, or wetland. Making matters worse—many of these disposal sites lack basic safeguards like protective liners or groundwater monitoring, increasing the chances that coal ash will leak directly into our water.

Unfortunately, accidents related to coal ash disposal sites can, and do, happen. November 1st of this year marks the two year anniversary of a disastrous coal ash spill into Lake Michigan. A large section of a coal ash dam collapsed beside the We Energies Oak Creek Power Plant in Wisconsin, spewing untold quantities of coal ash directly into the lake.

Fifteen of the 29 coal ash disposal sites are unregulated by state authorities in Michigan. We don’t know whether or not they are contaminating our water. And there is no way for a community to protect themselves. The Wisconsin spill is a cautionary tale of what can happen when we provide corporate polluters with a free pass to dispose of this toxic substance. We must take bold action to ensure the proper coal ash disposal safeguards are put in place to protect and preserve our Great Lakes legacy.

In addition to the threats posed by unchecked coal ash storage sites, there are other serious problems created by coal ash. Under the “beneficial reuse” provisions of Michigan law, coal ash is often used in trenches as construction fill or spread on agricultural fields. This type of “reuse” can be found all over the state in places like Michigan State University and can lead to serious contamination of our water.

Water defines our state and is central to Michigan’s economy. Major tourism, agriculture, and fishing industries depend on the health of rivers, lakes, and streams. The Great Lakes contain over 20% of the world’s fresh surface water. Unmitigated coal ash pollution threatens the health of our water and Michigan’s economy.

Weak state regulations are made worse by the absence of strong EPA rules addressing the long-term disposal of coal ash and an effort in Congress to pass legislation that would prevent the EPA from ever setting federal regulations for this waste. The state can and must do more to protect public health and water quality by overseeing handling and disposal of coal ash and cleaning up contaminated and leaking coal ash sites.

Coal ash pollution is preventable. As Toxic Trash Exposed shows, measures like requiring protective liners and ground water monitoring for storage sites can protect our water and safeguard our communities. Ultimately, the best way to deal with coal ash is to create a clean energy future by retiring coal plants, remediating polluted coal ash sites, and creating new investments in Michigan-made renewable energy technologies.

Clean Water Action and Clean Water Fund will continue to fight for strong regulations for our communities and our water at a state and federal level. We hope our politicians in Washington will do the same by opposing any attempt to subvert the EPA’s authority and support federal regulations that protect Michigan from this toxic threat.

If you missed it, read part one of this blog series, “No EPA Progress on Anniversary of Coal Ash Disaster”. The series continued with an opinion piece from Russ Maddox on the impacts of coal mined in Alaska and burned at Alaskan power plants in part two, and a report from Lisa Graves-Marcucci of EIP on the work being done to clean up the pollution at the Little Blue Run coal ash impoundment.

Learn more about coal ash in an interactive infographic:

Jared was the head coach of Earthjustice's advocacy campaign team from 2004 to 2014.

Earthjustice’s Washington, D.C., office works at the federal level to prevent air and water pollution, combat climate change, and protect natural areas. We also work with communities in the Mid-Atlantic region and elsewhere to address severe local environmental health problems, including exposures to dangerous air contaminants in toxic hot spots, sewage backups and overflows, chemical disasters, and contamination of drinking water. The D.C. office has been in operation since 1978.