Industrial facilities along the Lake Michigan shoreline from Wisconsin to Indiana are at risk of flooding due to climate change-induced swings in lake levels, a threat that could spread harmful contamination to neighboring communities, according to a new report.
The Environmental Law & Policy Center report identified 12 industrial areas, including the residential areas near the shuttered State Line Generating Plant in Hammond and the U.S. Steel Corp.’s Gary Works in Gary, which are at risk from rainfall-induced flooding that could spread onsite pollutants like coal ash, heavy metals and hazardous steel byproducts into neighboring areas and Lake Michigan itself.
“The Great Lakes are our freshwater treasure, but climate change is increasingly causing more extreme lake levels whipped up by storm winds leading to destructive waves,” said Howard Learner, ELPC’s executive director. “It’s time for us to rethink the Great Lakes shoreline’s built environment to reassess the risks from industrial facilities with hazardous materials, as well as to our homes. Policymakers and public officials should step up to deploy all of the water management tools in the toolbox to strengthen shoreline resilience.”
More than a century of the constant heavy use of fossil fuels like coal, gasoline and natural gas has released massive amounts of greenhouse gases that trapped heat in the atmosphere instead of allowing it to go off into space.
The trapped heat has changed the earth’s climate, making it warmer, wetter and more dangerous, due to a higher risk of extreme weather events.
In Indiana and other parts of the Midwest, climate change has resulted in 5.6 inches more rain or snow every year compared to 1895, when records were first kept.
That, along with other factors, has resulted in 6-foot swings of record highs and lows of lake water levels in a short period of time.
According to the report, there is a statistically significant chance of lake levels reaching even higher record levels within the next few years, which would immediately threaten industrial facilities near the lakeshore.
The State Line Generating Plant in Hammond operated from 1929 until 2012 and was demolished in 2014. During its heyday, the plant ran four coal-fired generating units, which produced nearly a century’s worth of coal ash, a toxic byproduct of burning coal for fuel that contains cancer-causing heavy metals like arsenic, cadmium and chromium.
The site will become flooded if lake levels reach 585.6 feet, potentially send coal ash into neighborhoods in Hammond and East Chicago via the Grand Calumet River and Little Calumet River.
The U.S. Steel Gary Works is the largest integrated steel mill in the U.S., and is considered “the largest industrial polluter on the Great Lakes” by the Hoosier Environmental Council, discharging heavy metals, volatile organic compounds, mercury, PCBs and dioxin.
The facility would begin seeing flooding when sea levels reach 584 feet, and water could potentially breach shoreline barriers beyond that level of flooding.
The report recommends that local, state and federal authorities take into consideration the likelihood of potential flooding events and ensure something is done to ensure the spread of toxic pollution is avoided by taking early action.
“We need to rethink Lake Michigan’s shoreline infrastructure in light of increasingly extreme water levels. Adapting to climate change and dealing with public health threats will require significant federal, state and local financial investments and policy shifts. Policy makers must actively work with and include additional recommendations from affected communities,” the report states.
The report’s authors say authorities should reassess vulnerable sites, evaluate flood risks when approving new projects, invest in green infrastructure to lessen flooding impact and effectively deploy federal funds and resources to ensure the agencies that protect waterways have sufficient funding to accomplish their missions.