Report: ‘Clean closure’ of coal plants would yield financial, environmental benefits

The current cap-in-place approach could lead to long-term pollution.
December 9, 2021

Communities faced with coal plant shutdowns as Indiana moves toward green energy would benefit both financially and environmentally if power companies followed a process known as “clean closure,” according to a recent report by national environmental law organization Earthjustice.

Clean closure – which involves either recycling toxic coal ash left over from the power generation process or storing it safely on a new site — would create jobs, bring income to affected communities, add an estimated $113 million to the state GDP, and protect water supplies and public health in the future, the report said. It offers significant advantages over the more common cap-in-place process.

Earthjustice analyzed the closure and cleanup of coal ash at three coal-fired generating stations, including the Michigan City Generating Station, owned by the Northern Indiana Public Service Co. It evaluated the cost, benefits and job creation of two different closure plan options for each site: leaving coal ash in place, or removing it for recycling or safe storage. The other two stations were in South Carolina and Montana.

An Earthjustice report, recommends a "clean closure" plan for the coal ash at the NIPSCO owned Michigan City Generating Station in Michigan City.

“While permanently removing toxic coal ash from a leaking impoundment has substantial and well-recognized health and environmental benefits, the myriad economic and employment advantages of safe and thorough impoundment closure previously had not been closely examined across multiple sites, leaving the public and regulators ill-equipped to demand the most appropriate closure and cleanup plan for each plant,” the report said.

According to Earthjustice’s data, leaving the coal ash in place at the Michigan City plant would create 10 jobs and would generate $600,000 in average annual income. The clean closure method would create 70 jobs and $4.5 million in average annual income, plus an estimated additional $113 million (an average of $8.1 million per year) above the leave-in-place method that NIPSCO proposed.

“In other words, clean closure is responsible for seven times more state GDP per year than the NIPSCO Leave-in-Place closure proposal. For clean closure, we estimate an electric bill increase of approximately 22 cents per month for residential customers over the analysis period relative to NIPSCO’s Leave-in-Place Closure,” the report stated.

The report said that although clean closure requires more labor at the beginning than the cap-in-place method, cap-in-place would require slightly more labor and expense in the long term during the operation and maintenance period of the closure.

Courtesy of Earthjustice.

Cap-in-place could have other negative consequences, it said.

“Improper and ineffective cleanup such as cap-in-place may lead to legacy pollution that can devastate both the social fabric and economic well-being of a community,” the report said. “While this analysis focuses on the increase in jobs and economic benefits from effective coal ash cleanup, it is also critical to consider additional benefits that flow from proper cleanup, such as improved public health outcomes, increased property values, healthy freshwater ecosystems, and redevelopment opportunities.”

NIPSCO communications manager Tara McElmurry said NIPSCO will work with the EPA and IDEM to establish the necessary protections for human health, the environment and natural resources.

“There is no indication of risk to human health or the environment from the Michigan City Generating Station,” she said. “However, there are known groundwater impacts, which are being addressed by the IDEM-approved work to begin closing the on-site coal ash ponds under the agencies' direction. Regarding other material on the property, we supply regular monitoring data — which is also publicly available — to the agencies, and they have not indicated that other related work is needed beyond the steps that are underway.”

NIPSCO says they are addressing known groundwater impacts at Michigan City and those are being addressed with the on-site closure plan of the coal ash ponds.

A coal ash state
Coal ash, or coal combustion residue (CCR), is the toxic substance that remains after burning coal for electricity. For years, utilities have been storing coal ash in impoundments or ponds on their property.

Indiana has more coal ash ponds than any other state. The vast majority are unlined, and many are located in flood plains. Because these ponds are unlined, there is no barrier between the ash and the ground water, resulting in coal ash contamination across the state.

Coal ash contains developmental toxins, neurotoxins, carcinogens and other dangerous chemicals such as lead, arsenic, cobalt, boron and radium.

A recent Hoosier Environmental Council report called Our Waters at Risk part 2 reviewed the most recent groundwater monitoring data for 15 coal ash sites. It found groundwater contamination on all the properties.

Percent of groundwater samples that exceeded each health-based limit at each coal ash site. Image provided by the Hoosier Environmental Council.

According to the report, “Fourteen of the 15 sites exceed drinking water limits for molybdenum and lithium, 12 for boron, 11 for arsenic, 10 for sulfate, six for cobalt, four each for antimony and radium and two each for lead, selenium and thallium. The maximum concentrations detected often exceeded drinking water standards by many-fold.”

In the town of Pines near Lake Michigan, NIPSCO had to pay to connect the town to Michigan City municipal water because one of its coal ash landfills sat on top of the town’s aquifer, leaching pollutants into the groundwater.

Coal ash spills also have resulted from dam bursts. At the IPL-owned Eagle Valley power plant in Martinsville, a spill in 2007 and another in 2008 led to 60 million gallons of coal ash going into the White River, which was never cleaned up.

A toxic legacy
Many utilities in Indiana have announced plans to move to natural gas, wind or solar energy and retire coal-burning stacks in the next few years.

Several coal ash closure plans, most of them for capping in place, are under review by the Indiana Department of Environmental Management. IDEM has already approved plans that would allow utilities to leave some coal ash ponds in place, even if they are in flood plains, posing a potential risk to water sources in nearby communities. In March, IDEM approved NIPSCO’s partial removal plan for Michigan City.

The five coal ash ponds at the Michigan City Generating Station are unlined and sit beside Lake Michigan.

The main reason cited for capping in place is cost. It costs a great deal to haul the ash to another location, and there is also a risk of ash spilling along the route. But capping in place does nothing to prevent the coal ash from leaching into the groundwater beneath the site.

The clean closure approach excavates and removes ash to a lined landfill or recycles it into a beneficial use product such as concrete or wall board. This method also mitigates groundwater contamination and risk of a spill due to a dam break or extreme weather event.

The Michigan City Generating Station is scheduled to be decommissioned between 2026 and 2028. The plant sits on Lake Michigan, and NIPSCO has been disposing of ash on site since 1931. Between 1931 and 1950, NIPSCO built steel sheet pile retaining walls along the lake and filled in behind the sheet pile with coal ash.

The current plan will remove the ash from the five ponds, but will leave the legacy ash in place that was used to build the 'made land'. NIPCO built parking lots and buildings on top of this coal ash.

According the Hoosier Environmental Council, “This created ‘made land’ with fill up to 40 feet deep behind the sheet pile. On the made land, NIPSCO built parking lots, buildings and their coal ash ponds.”

These five ponds are unlined, and sheet piling has a limited lifespan. NIPSCO’s current closure plan will remove the ash from the five ponds, but the legacy fill ash that was used to build the ‘made land’ would stay in place.

According to a report compiled by KirK Engineering and Natural Resources in July, the oldest sheet piling dates to the 1930s. It holds back about 2 million cubic yards of fill that is at risk of “catastrophic release” if the piling fails. The report said NIPSCO’s closure plan includes no information about maintaining the piling.

Testing has shown that groundwater beneath the ponds contains arsenic, boron and selenium. The largest pollutant is arsenic, with levels 50 times the human health maximum contaminant level.

Percent of downgradient wells with one or more chemicals above the health-based limit. Image provided by the Hoosier Environmental Council.

“Groundwater at the site flows towards Trail Creek and Lake Michigan, so the fear is that contamination in the groundwater is impacting lake sediment, aquatic life or surface water. However, like at many sites around the U.S., monitoring data for off-site contamination are scant, incomplete, or non-existent,” the Earthjustice report stated.

KirK Engineering also pointed out that the source of the arsenic plume hasn’t been identified, meaning it may not be accounted for in the proposed cleanup plan and could cause long-term pollution.

However, McElmurry said the primary source of arsenic appears to be among the materials that will be removed by NIPSCO.

Community concerns
The release of the Earthjustice report caused concern for members of the Michigan City Common Council. In August, they voted unanimously to request that the Earthjustice report recommendations for the Michigan City plant be implemented.

Dalia Zygas, the council member who introduced the resolution, said she and other council members didn’t know about the legacy coal ash — the “made land” — until they read the Earthjustice report.

“As someone said, and I'm not the originator of this quote, but they said they couldn't think of a worse place to have toxic waste than the shoreline of Lake Michigan,” Zygas said. “First of all, Great Lakes are a great resource. And second of all, it's drinking water for millions of people.”

The members of the Michigan City Common Council voted unanimously to request that NIPSCO adopt the Earthjustice recommendations for the Michigan City closure plan.

She said the report generated a lot of interest in the community. The city would like to be a part of the discussions about what happens to the NIPSCO-owned land after the cleanup because it would be a crucial area for the town to develop.

McElmurry said NIPSCO has worked closely with the Michigan City community, including the mayor, city council and other stakeholders, as well as members of the public.

“We look forward to continuing to work closely with the city as these plans progress, including as we get closer to the retirement of the generating station in 2028,” she said. “NIPSCO will engage the city in discussion of property disposition and future use of this site. NIPSCO would like to see positive redevelopment of the site take place, which will enhance the quality of life for Michigan City and LaPorte County.”

Environmental injustice
Just Transition NWI is a community organization formed in April 2020 around the issue of the Michigan City plant closure and the clean and safe removal of coal ash. The group would like a just and equitable transition from fossil fuels to cleaner sources of energy.

The team and volunteers of Just Transition North West Indiana.

Just Transition has been working to keep the community informed on the closure plans and on issues related to coal ash pollution. It also helped gather information for the Earthjustice report.

“We’re excited to see that the council is moving on this, and we’re seeing continued support and energy around the issue of coal ash,” said Ashley Williams, executive director of Just Transition NWI. “We are hoping to be able to take this to the next step of really holding NIPSCO accountable.”

The team has also been working on state legislation regarding coal ash and would like to see clean closure mandated across the state, not just for the Michigan City plant.

The Earthjustice report stressed the importance of acknowledging that the social, economic and health burdens of coal ash pollution are carried disproportionately by communities of color and low-income communities nationwide.

These communities are unlikely to have the resources to test their drinking water and often lack access to adequate medical care and legal assistance, the report said. Also, some lack the political power necessary to garner the attention of officials or regulatory agencies.

“In sum, coal ash creates environmental injustice, where harm falls disproportionately on our nation’s most vulnerable communities. Each of the sites examined in this report is located near populations that have a disproportionate percentage of low-income residents and/or people of color,” the report stated.

The community surrounding the Michigan City plant is 39% people of color and 46% low-income households. Those demographics also lead to concerns about the redevelopment of the land once the closure is completed.

The Earthjustice report suggests that local and state officials could require provisions for a local-hire preference, and negotiate for appropriate wages and benefits for cleanup workers, as well as job training and placement programs to help local residents access the cleanup jobs in the closure plan.

Because the land is lakefront property, there is concern that high-end real estate could replace the plant and local residents could be priced out of their community. Instead, local residents would like to see inclusive redevelopment and something the entire community could use, such as a park or public infrastructure.

Local residents would like to see inclusive redevelopment and something the entire community could use, such as a park or public infrastructure once the plant closure is complete.

The report also mentions the potential ecological benefits of the site.

“If the ecological function and integrity of the site are restored, this would also connect the important ecosystems surrounding Michigan City, including the Lake Michigan lakeshore and Indiana Dunes National Park,” it said. “A community-led redevelopment plan that considers these redevelopment alternatives could mitigate some of the legacy economic and health impacts residents have endured living next to a coal-fired power plant for over 100 years. Developing a plan like this could also ensure environmental justice is linked to redevelopment, generate revenue for the city and local businesses, and enhance quality of life for city residents.”

Recently NIPSCO announced plans to possibly finish the clean-up of the Michigan City plant two years earlier than expected. It plans to replace the natural gas peaking unit at R.M. Schahfer Generating Station, add incremental solar power and upgrade existing facilities at the Sugar Creek Generating Station to avoid any possible disruption of service.

However, in the press release announcing these new changes, NIPSCO did not include updated coal ash removal plans.

NIPSCO has announced plans to possibly finish the clean-up of the Michigan City plant two years earlier than expected, but didn't include any updated coal ash removal plans at that time.

In a statement to the Indiana Environmental Reporter, McElmurry said,“While NIPSCO recently announced a refined timeline for retiring the Michigan City Generating Station between 2026 and 2028, we still intend to proceed with the IDEM-reviewed and -approved plan to address more than 11.4 acres and the removal of an estimated 170,000 cubic yards of material in five coal ash ponds within the site. Per the Coal Combustion Residuals (CCR) Rule, NIPSCO will begin the coal ash removal and pond closure work at the Michigan City station in the spring of 2022 and is expected to complete the work by the November 2023 deadline.”

McMurry said the legacy ash is governed by the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) through the Environmental Protection Agency.

“NIPSCO has a RCRA agreed order with the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) that governs environmental requirements across the entire Michigan City station property, where we provide IDEM with groundwater quality monitoring data on a regular basis, in addition to other assessment activities required by IDEM,” she said. “IDEM is the state agency responsible for implementing federal and state regulations to protect human health and the environment. NIPSCO has and will continue to work with IDEM to comply with all requirements.”

NIPSCO said it will continue to work with IDEM to comply with all state and federal requirements for the leave-in-place closure.

McElmurry said NIPSCO continues to have an open dialogue with Michigan City leaders and will continue to provide updates as the plan progresses.

The EPA is reviewing the closure plan for the Michigan City plant. There will be a public comment period once the EPA issues the report.

Report: ‘Clean closure’ of coal plants would yield financial, environmental benefits