Many coal-fired power plants have been located on the shores of the Great Lakes, and there’s increasing concern that climate change-related flooding could cause water from coal ash ponds – waste ponds storing wet ash that include heavy metals like chromium, arsenic and selenium – could enter Lake Michigan. These impoundments are vulnerable to extreme weather events that can cause embankments to be overtopped or even fail entirely.
A report from the Environmental Law and Policy Centers says a combination of heavy rainfall and high lake levels could send coal ash from plants in Illinois and Wisconsin into Lake Michigan. Even without extreme weather, contaminants from the impoundments can pollute groundwater, leading the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to compel coal ash ponds that are in contact with groundwater to close. Yet, environmental advocates say that this “cap in place” strategy won’t be enough to prevent disasters when coal ash ponds are located in places where there will be ongoing issues with flooding and erosion.
What are the alternatives? One is excavating the ponds and depositing he waste into landfills – something many communities on the receiving end oppose. It’s also expensive, risks contaminating groundwater and require risky and lengthy transport. Another option is re-use – about three-fifths of coal ash produced each year is reused for things like concrete, drywall, agricultural fertilizer, structural foundation materials, and roadways – but the practice is not without cost and technical barriers. Where and in what applications matter – and the EPA has been slow to revise a ruling establishing a maximum volume requirement to trigger scrutiny.
“Is it above the groundwater table? Is it in an unstable area? Are there sinkholes? Is it in a wetland? Is it in a floodplain? Is it in a seismic area? All of those kinds of considerations also have a big effect on whether it’s a concern and how much of it is going to pose a problem,” said Jenny Cassel, a senior attorney at Earthjustice.