Coal Ash Spill in Lake Michigan Another Blow to Industry’s “Clean Coal” Propaganda

The site of a bluff collapse at the We Energies Oak Creek Power Plant in Oak Creek, Wis. is shown on Oct. 31. A section of cliff the size of a football field gave way, creating a mudslide that sent a pickup truck and other equipment tumbling into Lake Michigan and swept several construction trailers toward the beach. (AP Photo/Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Mark Hoffman)
A massive coal ash spill in Lake Michigan on Halloween was further proof that coal-fired power plants are anything but clean, as the industry claims.

It’s bad enough that coal-fired power plants contribute to global warming, kill millions of fish while inhaling huge quantities of water and spew mercury into the atmosphere that poisons fish across the Great Lakes region. It’s now becoming clear that the huge quantities of toxic coal ash stockpiled at coal-fired power plants around the Great Lakes and across the U.S. could be environmental nightmares waiting to happen.

That became painfully evident on Monday, when a large section of bluff at the We Energies Oak Creek Power Plant near Milwaukee collapsed, sending a torrent of coal ash, mud and other debris into Lake Michigan.

The incident left an oily sheen and a large black plume on the surface of Lake   Michigan. Coal ash isn’t just dirty — it contains numerous heavy metals and other toxins. Crews are trying to clean up the mess and government agencies are investigating possible effects on Lake Michigan.

Ironically, the spill at the We Energies facility came as Congress is debating stricter regulations on the use and disposal of coal ash. Go here to read a summary of the proposed regulations.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency got serious about regulating coal ash in 2009, after a spill at a Tennessee Valley Authority power plant sent more than 5-million cubic yards of coal ash cascading down a mountain valley. The Tennessee spill polluted a river, killed fish and flooded homes; it turned more than 300 acres of land into a polluted moonscape.

Coal ash landfills like the ones that ruptured in Tennessee and Wisconsin are common in the U.S. Many are located along rivers and lakes, where power plants get their cooling water.

Leaking coal ash landfills are potentially a huge and costly problem. Coal ash contains a variety of toxins that can cause health problems, including mercury, cadmium, chromium and arsenic.

The EPA concluded in 2010 that contaminants in coal ash, if not properly managed, could leach into groundwater, poison drinking water sources and threaten public health. Based on those concerns, and the known toxins in coal ash, the EPA proposed regulating coal ash as a hazardous substance.

But Congress is balking.  The House of Representatives blocked the measure recently and the Senate is considering a similar move.

That was disappointing but not surprising: The coal lobby is enormously powerful in Washington and has played a key role in derailing efforts to reduce air pollution from coal-fired power plants that contributes to global warming, causes asthma in humans and poisons fish with mercury.

Whether coal ash poses an acute public health threat may still be subject to debate. But this much is clear: The federal government needs stronger regulations on how and where utilities dispose of coal ash.

The coal industry would like Americans to believe that coal is a clean source of energy. That, of course, is a ludicrous claim — coal-fired power plants rank among the nation’s worst air polluters.

One can only wonder if the coal ash spills in Tennessee and Wisconsin could have been prevented if the energy industry spent less time and money on the misleading “clean coal” advertising campaign and focused more on safely managing its toxic byproducts.