Report says the steel wall holding back coal ash fill in Michigan City could fail, NIPSCO disagrees
A new report said steel walls near the Michigan City coal plant aren’t keeping coal ash waste from getting into Lake Michigan and Trail Creek — and it will likely get worse over time. But the northern Indiana utility NIPSCO — which owns the plant — said info in the report has been “cherry-picked.”
Though NIPSCO plans to remove coal ash waste from its ponds at the Michigan City plant, it doesn’t plan to excavate the ash used as fill on the site.
NIPSCO also used coal ash as fill in the Town of Pines. The utility was ordered to remove contaminated soil from properties in the area and pay to connect about 270 homes on private drinking water wells to city water.
The report by Burgess Environmental commissioned for Earthjustice reviewed inspection reports and other documents on the stability and integrity of the walls holding some of that waste back.
The report said since the walls were put in place starting in the 1930s, their thickness has corroded. They’ve also moved and part of the wall is leaning outward.
“Well it's an indication that eventually you’re going to fail and then the contaminant — you know, the coal ash — will be exposed to the waves of Lake Michigan," said Gordon Johnson, a geological engineer for Burgess Environmental.
Nick Meyer is the vice president of communications for NiSource — NIPSCO’s parent company. He said the report “cherry-picked” information and the walls have received a “fair” rating — which means though there are some defects and deterioration, the structural elements are sound.
“Kind of picking bits and pieces of older reports and sort of piecing together a bit of a different conclusion based on the reports that they're reviewing," Meyer said.
The oldest report used in the Burgess Environmental review was from 2018. Johnson said his report was meant to "investigate and evaluate the areas that are most likely to fail."
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Donnita Scully is a nurse and chairs the LaPorte County NAACP’s environmental climate justice and health committees. She said residents who get exposed to toxic heavy metals in the coal ash could suffer an array of health problems — like damaging their heart, brain and nervous system, as well as increase their risk for certain cancers.
“We don't want to create any diseases that could have been prevented. So the way to do that is just to clean up all of the coal ash," Scully said.
NIPSCO has said that although coal ash is getting into groundwater, most people in the city get treated drinking water from the local utility. But Scully lives in the Trail Creek neighborhood and has a private drinking water well. She said, because of this, she only drinks bottled water.
Scully said people also eat the fish out of Trail Creek and Lake Michigan.
"Not enough people know, really what is occurring and not enough people are equipped to engage in preventative health measures," she said.
Meyer said NIPSCO plans to remove coal ash waste from its designated ponds on the site — which he said is the primary source of the contamination.
Earthjustice said leaving coal ash used as fill on the site could also prevent the land from being turned into something good for the community.
Indiana environmental reporting is supported by the Environmental Resilience Institute, an Indiana University Grand Challenge project developing Indiana-specific projections and informed responses to problems of environmental change.