A coal ash cleanup effort in Tennessee.
A coal ash cleanup effort in Tennessee. Credit: Appalachian Voices / Creative Commons

An Indiana utility currently has no legal obligation to remove much of the 2 million tons of coal ash deposited along Lake Michigan in the decades before a 2015 federal law instituted cleanup requirements.

But advocates say there is a solid economic case — and a legal path — for state or federal regulators to require a more thorough cleanup of so-called “legacy” coal ash at Northern Indiana Public Service Company’s Michigan City power plant, slated to close in 2028. 

Several decades’ worth of coal ash is mixed with sand and held back from Lake Michigan by aging steel barriers. NIPSCO is proposing to leave that coal ash in place while removing ash from newer ponds onsite, as required by the 2015 Coal Combustion Residuals federal law.

A recent study commissioned by Earthjustice found that removing all of the ash instead would eliminate a potential source of groundwater pollution and also create far more jobs and economic impact — about 70 direct full-time jobs and $4.5 million in income for workers.

The company’s plans would create 10 jobs and $0.6 million, according to the report.

Earthjustice and local groups are calling on state and federal regulators — namely the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Indiana Department of Environmental Management — to demand the legacy ash be removed under other laws governing waste.

The situation highlights the difficulty, despite economic and environmental benefits, of convincing coal plant owners to remove coal ash deposited before and not subject to the 2015 law.

Without a government order, it could be hard for the utility to convince the state’s regulatory commission to allow it to charge ratepayers for a comprehensive cleanup, estimated to cost more than $150 million, compared to $17 million for NIPSCO’s proposed plans, according to a technical study by the firm Kirk Engineering and Natural Resources commissioned by Earthjustice.

But if the cost of removing legacy ash at Michigan City was spread among residential ratepayers, it would come out to about 22 cents a month more than the proposed plan, over 14 years, the study says.

NIPSCO spokesperson Tara McElmurry said ratepayers are not currently being charged for removing coal ash from the five ponds at Michigan City, and “we have not determined the specific option for cost recovery [for that work] at this time.”

“Any future recovery would be subject to a thorough review and approval from the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission,” she added. The EPA and state Department of Environmental Management “serve as the subject matter experts that establish the necessary protections which we must and do follow.”  

Implementing the widely-used IMPLAN economic model, Kirk Engineering estimated that the 70 jobs created by a full ash cleanup in Michigan City would generate $4.5 million in labor income, and the cleanup would result in an additional $113 million of GDP over 14 years.

Questioning priorities

Earthjustice senior counsel Lisa Evans said that even though the 2015 coal ash law doesn’t address the legacy coal ash in Michigan City, the federal government could invoke RCRA, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, which covers waste disposal in general, and the Superfund program.

The EPA did indeed use RCRA to take action on legacy coal ash at a former NIPSCO plant 15 miles west of Michigan City — the Bailly coal plant adjacent to the Indiana Dunes National Park. In 2005, the EPA signed a decree with NIPSCO demanding a comprehensive investigation of contamination from that coal ash, and in July, after an extensive process, the EPA issued a final order demanding a comprehensive cleanup. It cited “unacceptable risk” to plants and wildlife in the ecologically fragile area, though it did not find unacceptable risk to human health.

“The same level of investigation, courtesy and care must be extended to the community at Michigan City as was extended to the nonhuman vulnerable population at the national park,” Evans said.  

“I’m all in favor of protecting that dunes system of rare plants and animals. I applaud EPA’s careful approach to the cleanup of that site. But it’s really a tale of two cities where you have that careful examination of the fate and transport of pollutants 15 miles away, and [in Michigan City] in a relatively densely populated area you have none of that.”

Coal ash from the Michigan City plant was proven to pose a serious risk to human health just a few miles west of Michigan City, in the Town of Pines, which was declared a Superfund site because of groundwater and well contamination. After a years-long process, NIPSCO was forced to provide clean water to residents and fund a massive cleanup.

Groundwater has been contaminated by coal ash at the Michigan City site, though it is unclear whether the contamination stems from the ash ponds the company plans to remove or the legacy ash.

“It would be hard to distinguish between” the sources of contamination, said Indra Frank, director of environmental health and water policy for the Hoosier Environmental Council. “A fair amount of coal ash fill is soaking in the groundwater year-round. The legacy fill has to be contributing to the groundwater contamination, and the contaminated groundwater is seeping into Lake Michigan.”

It is also unclear how far off-site the contamination might extend, according to environmental groups.  

“NIPSCO’s responsibility right now is to determine the nature and extent of the contamination, going beyond what they’ve looked at so far,” Evans said. “Where did that [contaminated] groundwater go and what did it impact when it got there? EPA and IDEM [the Indiana Department of Environmental Management] have the authority to require that. And it’s my hope that NIPSCO would do that investigation voluntarily.”

Promising examples

The Earthjustice report examines two situations in which companies ultimately carried out more comprehensive coal ash removal than they had originally planned, under pressure from residents, advocates, and government officials.  

In both cases, the extra investment in ash removal will pay off in jobs and economic stimulus to the local economies, the report argues.

At the Grainger plant in the town of Conway, South Carolina, the company Santee Cooper had planned to leave coal ash in place and cap it, as allowed by the 2015 law if the ash is not in contact with groundwater. But residents and the City Council demanded the coal ash be removed, and reached an agreement for such removal through legal action.

That full cleanup led to the creation of 67 jobs, versus 24 that would have been created by capping ash in place; and the full cleanup created $3.8 million in economic stimulus versus $1.3 million that would have come from capping in place, the Earthjustice report found. 

Hurricane Florence hit in 2018 while the Grainger cleanup was ongoing, underscoring the importance of removing the coal ash for perpetuity, as described by local environmentalist Cara Schildtknecht, of the Winyah Rivers Alliance. 

“Conway has a serious flooding problem to begin with, if you pile on the concern of polluted waters, and the majority of our drinking water comes from surface waters, you have the cost of drinking water going up, or potentially toxic water we couldn’t even drink,” she said. “Having [the ash] removed and out of there makes the economy better for local communities, and it has the benefits of potentially increased tourism.” 

The former coal ash site has now been transformed into a wetland that connects a nearby national wildlife refuge and college with the town. 

“Conway bills itself as a historic river town — if you have these giant coal ash ponds right on your river, and people have to drive by them to get into and out of downtown, that’s taking away from your river town,” Schildtknecht said. “Now there’s opportunity for more riparian habitat and returning it to nature, for more river recreation, bringing more people in.

Coal plant workers were hired for the Grainger cleanup, so that no employees were laid off after the plant’s 2012 closure. With cleanup finished, the company has said it will offer employment related to its clean energy transition to about 200 former coal plant workers, according to the report.

At the partly closed 2,000-megawatt Colstrip Steam power plant in Montana, full cleanup would create 404 jobs, compared to 158 for capping the ash in place as proposed by plant owner Talen Energy Corporation, the Earthjustice report found. 

Ranchers had long been impacted by coal ash pollution leaching into the groundwater, and ultimately ranchers worked with the union plant workers, and a state grant, to propose a plan for more comprehensive ash cleanup.

State regulators ultimately approved that plan, allowing ratepayers to be billed for it. The state also passed a law mandating a prevailing wage be paid for cleanup work, including $28 per hour or more for heavy equipment operators. 

Transformation and inclusion 

As the Colstrip situation demonstrated, deep involvement from community residents, labor leaders and elected officials is crucial to an adequate and just cleanup and transition as coal plants close, ash is removed and the site is repurposed, advocates say.

In Michigan City, the Earthjustice report recommends that the labor union representing plant workers negotiate with NIPSCO to ensure workers are hired for cleanup, and it notes that NIPSCO’s entire 2,100-megawatt fleet is scheduled for closure by 2028, so Michigan City workers trained in coal ash removal and remediation could also be deployed elsewhere. 

Earthjustice tapped Kirk Engineering to analyze various options for redeveloping the site once all the ash is removed and the site is covered with six inches of clean topsoil. Earthjustice and local groups are demanding meaningful community involvement in the redevelopment process, including potentially a citizens council to oversee it. 

Options studied by the engineering firm include a publicly or privately owned campground and/or marina, low-income affordable housing, mixed-use commercial and housing development, renewable energy generation, a concert venue, sports fields, expansion of the nearby Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, and creation of a Climate Change Resource Center. 

The firm notes that private dollars and federal dollars, including from the National Park Service, could help fund such options. Kirk Engineering lists case studies nationwide for community-informed redevelopment of industrial sites, including a former landfill in New Jersey that was converted into a 24,000-panel solar installation and the removal of a dam and cleanup of heavy mining waste in Montana, transforming the area for fishing and recreation. 

Some fear full remediation in Michigan City would open the door to higher-end residential development and gentrification, a common concern in lake or riverfront areas where industries have closed. A true just transition would involve creating new public amenities for the community that has for almost a century suffered from the public health and quality of life impacts of living near the plant, advocates say. 

“The fact of the matter is, in Michigan City, much of the population is struggling to get their basic needs met. They’re working more than one job — we’re all stretched and stressed,” said Susan Thomas, legislative coordinator for the group Just Transition Northwest Indiana. “How do you redevelop that site for the community?”

Kari has written for the Energy News Network since January 2011. She is an author and journalist who worked for the Washington Post's Midwest bureau from 1997 through 2009. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times, Chicago News Cooperative, Chicago Reader and other publications. Based in Chicago, Kari covers Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana as well as environmental justice topics.