Regulators demand action over BWL pollution in Lansing

Water contamination probe starts at Erickson plant

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State and federal regulators are requiring the Lansing Board of Water & Light to take steps to investigate and address heavy metals and other contaminants that are leaking from toxic coal ash ponds near the Erickson Power Station into groundwater, and possibly into drinking water.

An investigation into the pollution’s scope and subsequent remediation efforts could take months. Officials with the Michigan Department of Environment Great Lakes and Energy and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency met privately Tuesday afternoon to discuss how to coordinate enforcement of state and federal rules regarding the pollution that BWL has violated.

“We’re continuing to work with the Board of Water & Light on meeting the groundwater investigation requirements and getting the nature and extent of the contamination defined,” said Alexandra Clark, an enforcement manager with EGLE. “Meanwhile we will continue our close collaboration with EPA to understand their next steps and what makes the most sense in terms of the state’s specific actions.”

BWL detected high levels of lithium, boron, TDS and molybdenum leaching from its three coal ash ponds in 2020. Though it’s unclear exactly when those leaks started, the Erickson Power Station, which is off Canal Road in Eaton County, has operated its coal ash ponds since 1974.

BWL’s administration kept the issue quiet until City Pulse reported on EPA documents that detailed the pollution and confirmed with EGLE that the agency is taking enforcement action.

Among violations at the state level are a failure to prevent groundwater contamination, obtain proper licenses and keep a proper distance between the ponds and groundwater. The state also dinged BWL for a failure to install proper pond liners, which are designed to prevent pollution.

The EPA didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. EGLE officials said BWL — at least so far — has been cooperative amid the state and federal investigation, noting that the utility is working closely with state and federal regulators to implement its cleanup plan.

Groundwater, aquifers, and surface water that may be contaminated are all interconnected, and pollution in each presents separate sets of problems — each demanding different remedies. BWL has already detected groundwater contamination. Four monitoring wells that it recently dug determined that the plume is migrating down gradient. However, no one knows how large that plume might be. As part of its enforcement process, EGLE has required BWL to dig up four more wells to help determine precisely how far the plume has migrated. It must also continue to dig new wells further out from the ponds until regulators are no longer able to detect pollution.

While the contamination presents a serious threat to those who drink contaminated water, it’s possible that the plume hasn’t reached drinking water supplies. And though two municipal wells are down gradient from the ponds, those were decommissioned and are no longer in use — which means that the plume likely hasn’t contaminated supplies for a broad piece of the region’s population. It’s also possible that the wells were contaminated prior to being decommissioned.

Dozens of private wells that are down gradient from and within a mile of the ponds remain active, EPA documents show, and most pull water from the bedrock aquifer. There’s no way to tell if drinking water supplies are contaminated without testing private wells or digging more wells that reach the bedrock. EGLE is requiring BWL to do the latter.

BWL has not tested nearby drinking wells. EGLE officials, however, said they will test two nearby wells “out of an abundance of caution.” Depending on what they find in those local aquifers, the state could then require more of the dozens of wells within a mile to be tested.

BWL’s inaction on the potential drinking water pollution drew criticism from Lisa Evans, an attorney with environmental watchdog Earthjustice, who said the state and BWL should immediately test drinking water wells in the vicinity that are down gradient from the pond.

“If I was at EGLE or a manager at BWL, my first priority would be to ensure that people’s drinking water is not contaminated,” she said. “To spend any more time drilling wells and sampling before you go and sample the community doesn’t make any sense, and is adding an unnecessary delay and perhaps endangering people’s health.”

A spokesperson for EGLE said the risk of well contamination is low, and “in situations like this, we typically proceed with site investigation first, and allow new data to inform next steps.”

Neighbors have not yet been alerted of the potential for contamination as state law only requires it when contamination is confirmed on their property. EGLE said it will proactively alert property owners if information suggests a significant risk. 

Evans noted that the percentage of people of color and low-income residents in the local area are higher than the state average, defining Lansing as an “environmental justice” community under EPA standards. Evans noted that means residents who may be affected are also more likely to have limited access to healthcare, in turn making them more vulnerable to pollutants.

“These are communities where the state should be particularly concerned that the water residents are drinking is healthy,” she said.

If wells are found to be contaminated, then BWL would have to provide whole house filters or run a municipal line to the property. Groundwater contamination may require BWL to extract water and either dispose of it or treat it and re-inject it, EGLE said.

Surface water — which includes wetlands, streams, rivers and lakes — could also be contaminated by the coal ash ponds. EGLE is also forcing BWL to test a groundwater-fed wetland down gradient from the ponds. Fish could be another potential exposure pathway.

Moreover, research shows that boron is also phytotoxic at low levels, and EGLE fears it may harm the wetland’s plant life. However, it’s likely that the contamination would become diluted by the time it travels to larger waterways and won’t cause problems downstream.

BWL has also indicated that it will work to remove ash from the ponds and close them.

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