The Mess Near Milwaukee: Coal Ash Spills into Great Lakes and Underscores Political Folly in DC

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In case you missed it, an aging pile of toxic coal ash adjacent to a Wisconsin coal plant collapsed into Lake Michigan early Monday morning. Yeah, that’s the beloved lake that is a source of recreation and drinking water for millions and one of the few rallying issues left in our political lives that actually has bipartisan support.

Monday, a bluff next to We Energy’s Oak Creek Power Plant collapsed sending dirt and coal ash barreling down to the Lake with enough force to topple structures and toss aside a pickup truck. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that a "fuel sheen” could be seen on the Lake. Bad news. Worse news is that, even though some described the incident as a “freak accident,” it was not. This was a preventable mess. My colleague Meleah Geertsma notes that Dr. Donald Reed of the Southeast Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission raised concerns about the structural stability of the bluff in meetings with the company and during proceedings in front of the Public Service Commission several years ago. According to "Dr. Don," the bluffs are inherently unstable, such that a collapse was entirely foreseeable and hardly an "accident" as the company calls it. And Milwaukee media reported that the area was given a pass on environmental reviews of construction projects that might have otherwise noted structural problems.

In addition to spilling toxic waste into the Lake and  destabilizing the bluff on which the coal plant sits, the nasty event turbo-charged the already caustic arguments over how to deal with coal ash that lies in huge, under-engineered waste ponds all over the country.

We have a serious problem with coal ash right now. You would think that the gob-smackingly amazing TVA disaster in Tennessee two Christmases ago would have galvanized the nation into addressing the coal ash risk facing the nation. The TVA disaster came about when the dikes holding back a giant slurry pond, containing a billion gallons of the heavy-metal-rich coal ash, gave way, swamping the Emory River and wiping out a number of homes in the path of the streaming coal ash.

The mess in Milwaukee is nowhere near the same scale, but it is a reminder that the longer we wait to deal with the issue, the more of these incidents will happen, threatening water resources and economies all over the country as this stuff continues to pile up. The Wisconsin incident could be a dangerous glimpse into the future if we don’t get this right. The We Energy mess involves the collapse of a 50 year-old ravine that had been filled with coal waste claimed to be “structural fill.” This so-called “structural fill” is one of the fastest growing use for coal ash.

But in their current anti-regulatory frenzy, some in Congress are trying to stop the development of commonsense rules that would safely deal with disposal of coal ash. Just two weeks ago, the House passed a bill stripping the EPA of authority to protect the public from coal ash, which is known to be rich in all sorts of nasty stuff that is bad for children and other living things. Here’s how the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s energy reporter Tom Content describes the issue, which is pooh-poohed by industry sources who should know better:

Coal ash landfills are common across the country, including Wisconsin. These landfills are monitored for contaminants that are found in coal ash, including mercury, cadmium and arsenic, which are associated with cancer and other serious health effects.

In its own update on the bluff collapse, We Energies said, "Coal ash is not hazardous material. It is unlikely there will be any health impacts at all from this event."

That sort of statement is disappointing. No. That’s too weak. That sort of statement is outrageous, selfish and fundamentally unacceptable. It is the sort of statement that drips with cynicism and accordingly poisons the atmosphere of our nation’s public discussion about how to address the future. Most immediately, it prevents us from putting together a practical regulatory framework that will protect our health and safety, and give the business community the workable standards and certainty necessary to prevent future disasters. But in a broader sense, this is the sort of corporate response fueling protesters in many of our nation’s cities right now. 

Hopefully the incident will be a wakeup call to both the Republicans and Democrats in the Senate who care about the Great Lakes---and there are a lot of them who understand the health of the Great Lakes to be a non-partisan cause. They should lead the charge to protect the water resources that are so central to their constituents’ lives by putting an end to this short-sighted effort to prolong the coal ash disposal problem and look past the industry pressure to a solution that protects Americans (and the Great Lakes, which are lined with aging coal facilities that crank out tons and tons of this waste) from this unnecessary threat.

"Power Plant" image of Oak Creek Plant by JohnnyFixedGear via Flickr