Toxic Coal Ash in Michigan: Addressing Coal Plants’ Hazardous Legacy

For decades, utilities disposed of coal ash — the hazardous substance left after burning coal for energy — by dumping it in unlined ponds and landfills. Michigan has 52 coal ash dumpsites.

Coal ash contains hazardous pollutants including arsenic, boron, cobalt, chromium, lead, lithium, mercury, molybdenum, radium, selenium, and other heavy metals, which have been linked to cancer, heart and thyroid disease, reproductive failure, and neurological harm. In 2023, the EPA acknowledged that coal ash is even more dangerous than previously thought, with levels of arsenic and radiation that pose cancer risks.

Industry’s own data indicate that across the country 91% of coal plants are currently polluting groundwater above federal health standards with toxic pollutants.

Coal ash remains one of our nation’s largest toxic industrial waste streams. U.S. coal plants continue to produce approximately 70 million tons every year.

Despite EPA’s 2015 Coal Ash Rule, which created the first-ever safeguards for coal ash disposal, many coal ash dumps remain unregulated due to sweeping exemptions for legacy coal ash ponds and inactive landfills.

The exempted coal ash dumps are sited disproportionately in low-income communities and communities of color. After years of litigation and grassroots activism, the EPA will extend clean up requirements to hundreds of old coal ash dumps across the country when it issues new regulations in the spring of 2024.

In 2023, the EPA acknowledged widespread noncompliance with existing coal ash regulations and ramped up enforcement after designating coal ash a national enforcement priority.

A city bus drives past the Ford Rouge River Plant in Dearborn, Michigan, in 2009.
The Ford Rouge River Plant in Dearborn, Mich., in 2009. (Aaron Lee Fineman / VWPics via Redux)

Action Needed

The magnitude of harm from recklessly dumped toxic coal ash requires decisive action from federal and state regulators.

  • Utilities must be required to comply with the law and immediately clean up their pollution.
  • EPA and states must act quickly to ensure that utilities leave communities with sites that benefit rather than harm their health, environment, and economic status.
  • EPA must take action to prohibit the use of coal ash as construction fill and make polluters clean up areas where ash was used as fill.
Coal ash dump sites across the United States. Use this map to understand where coal ash might be stored near you and how a given site may be impacted by EPA's expansion of the federal Coal Ash Rule. (Caroline Weinberg / Earthjustice)

30 Regulated Coal Ash Disposal Sites in Michigan

Michigan utilities operate 30 regulated coal ash ponds and landfills containing more than 79 million cubic yards of toxic waste at 15 coal plants.

Coal ash has caused significant groundwater contamination at nearly all of the state’s regulated dumpsites.

To date, only one Michigan plant has even selected a cleanup plan.

BC Cobb Muskegon Consumers Energy 2 unlined ponds Arsenic (x2), Boron (x6), Lithium (x3), Molybdenum (x2), Radium 226+228 (x1)
Belle River China Twp DTE 1 unlined pond, 1 landfill Boron (x1), Cobalt (x1), Lithium (x2), Molybdenum (x2)
DE Karn Essexville Consumers Energy 1 unlined pond Arsenic (x45), Boron (x2), Lead (x2), Molybdenum (x1), Sulfate (x1)
Erickson Delta Twp BWL 3 unlined ponds Coal ash caused drinking water well contamination in nearby residences*
James DeYoung Holland Holland Bd of Public Works 3 unlined ponds Lithium (x3), Sulfate (x2)
JB Sims Grand Haven Grand Haven Board of Light 2 unlined ponds Arsenic (x12), Boron (x75), Cobalt (x1), Fluoride (x4), Lithium (x50), Sulfate (x2)
JC Weadock Essexville Consumer Energy 1 unlined pond, 1 landfill Arsenic (x8), Beryllium (x3), Boron (x2), Cobalt (x2), Lithium (x6), Molybdenum (x3), Sulfate (x4), Thallium (x1)
JH Campbell West Olive Consumers Energy 3 unlined ponds, 1 landfill Antimony (x3), Arsenic (x29), Cobalt (x2), Lithium (x2), Molybdenum (x3), Selenium (x1), Thallium (x1)
JR Whiting Erie Consumers Energy 2 unlined ponds Cobalt (x1), Lithium (x2), Thallium (x1)
Monroe Monroe DTE 2 unlined ponds, 1 landfill Boron (x1), Lithium (x3), Sulfate (x3)
Presque Isle Marquette We Energies 1 landfill No exceedances
River Rouge River Rouge DTE 1 unlined pond Arsenic (x8), Boron (x1), Lithium (x1), Molybdenum (x1)
Shiras Marquette Marquette Bd Light & Power 1 unlined pond Cobalt (x1), Lead (x2)
St Clair E. China Twp Luminant 2 unlined ponds Boron (x1), Lithium (x2)
Trenton Trenton NRG 1 landfill Arsenic (x38), Boron (x1), Lithium (x6), Radium 226+228 (x9), Sulfate (x7)

All data on groundwater contamination from coal ash derived from the utilities’ publicly accessible CCR Compliance Data and Information websites, and exceedances were calculated by Environmental Integrity Project.

For more information on regulated coal ash sites in Michigan, see Mapping the Coal Ash Contamination.

22 Unregulated Coal Ash Legacy Ponds and Inactive Landfills in Michigan (ash dumps exempted from the 2015 Coal Ash Rule)

March 2024 Update: The table below underestimates the legacy units that may be regulated by EPA’s upcoming CCR Legacy Pond Rule. Additional legacy units at specific plants may be found in the national map, above.

In addition, Michigan hosts at least 22 unregulated inactive coal ash landfills and legacy ponds at 12 coal plants or landfill sites that escape federal regulation. The exact number of unregulated dumps is unknown because utilities are not required to report them.

At most of these sites in Michigan, EPA determined that coal ash has contaminated underlying groundwater with toxic substances since at least 2014.

As we anticipate EPA’s proposed rule on legacy ponds and unregulated landfills in May 2023, a concern remains that the agency will not address coal ash that was dumped off site or used as fill.

DE Karn Essexville Consumers Energy Co 0 1 Yes – EPA damage case
Eckert Lansing Lansing Bd of Water & Light 1 1 Unknown
Harbor Beach Harbor Beach Detroit Edison Co 3 0 Unknown
JH Campbell West Olive Consumers Energy 0 6 Yes – EPA damage case
JR Whiting Erie Consumers Energy 0 2 Yes – EPA damage case
James DeYoung Holland Holland Bd of Public Works 0 1 Yes – Industry data*
John Warden Ash Site L’Anse, Baraga Co. Unknown 0 1 Yes – EPA damage case
Muskegon County Type III Landfill Muskegon Co Unknown 0 1 Yes – EPA damage case
North Lansing Landfill North Lansing Lansing Bd of Water & Light 0 1 Yes – EPA damage case
Pine Hill Landfill Negaunee Twp Marquette Bd of Power &Light 0 1 Yes – EPA damage case
Presque Isle Marquette We Energies 0 2 Yes – EPA damage case
Range Road Landfill East China Twp DTE 0 1 Yes – EPA damage case

* Industry monitoring data are the basis of a finding of contamination. See Ashtracker.

These data were developed by using EPA datasets relied upon in their 2007 and 2014 CCR risk assessments (Human and Ecological Risk Assessment of Coal Combustion Residuals) and comparing those datasets to the universe of regulated units.

“EPA damage case” denotes a site where US EPA has found documented groundwater contamination from coal ash.

Earthjustice fights in the courts for a long-term solution to the toxic menace of coal ash. And we act on behalf of dozens of clients and over 100 coalition partners to defeat legislative attempts to subvert federally enforceable safeguards of coal ash.

Earthjustice’s Clean Energy Program uses the power of the law and the strength of partnership to accelerate the transition to 100% clean energy.