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Lake Michigan community groups urge EPA to close loophole in federal coal ash rules

Coal ash floats on the surface of the Neuse River in North Carolina. The ash spilled from Duke Energy's former H.F. Lee coal plant in 2016. Groups from Indiana and Illinois want to prevent similar disasters from happening at legacy coal ash ponds along Lake Michigan.
Pete Harrison and Matt Starr
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Waterkeeper Alliance and Upper Neuse Riverkeeper
Coal ash floats on the surface of the Neuse River in North Carolina. The ash spilled from Duke Energy's former H.F. Lee coal plant in 2016. Groups from Indiana and Illinois want to prevent similar disasters from happening at legacy coal ash ponds along Lake Michigan.

Two groups want the Environmental Protection Agency to make good on its promise to clean up so-called “legacy” coal ash ponds along Lake Michigan. Just Transition Northwest Indiana and the Illinois Green New Deal Coalition plan to deliver a petition with almost 2,000 signatures to the EPA’s regional office in Chicago on Thursday.

The Obama administration put rules in place in 2015 to prevent coal ash from contaminating groundwater. But any ponds that were closed before then were exempt.

Susan Thomas is the director of legislation and policy for Just Transition Northwest Indiana. She said legacy coal ash ponds are an especially big problem along Lake Michigan — where high water and big waves can carry coal ash from plants on the lakeshore into the lake. Lake Michigan also serves as the drinking water source for about 10 million people.

“[Legacy coal ash ponds] are continuing to contaminate the environment — impacting our drinking water, our health, our environment. So we cannot continue to kick the can down the road," Thomas said.

The EPA is expected to make rules regarding legacy coal ash ponds soon.

But Thomas said communities that host coal ash can’t wait for another spill like what happened in Tennessee and North Carolina.

“We are really asking EPA to push to get this loophole closed. We have a small window of time — we're looking at two years, while we have a favorable administration looking at this, to close this loophole and get that cleaned up," she said.

READ MORE: Indiana groups sue EPA over coal ash landfills no longer being used

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Just Transition NWI wants the utility NIPSCO to clean up coal ash used as fill on the site of its Michigan City coal plant. It worries that if the seawall holding the ash back from the lake breaks, it could pollute Michigan City communities and waterways — as well as Lake Michigan itself.

Thomas said many communities along Lake Michigan are facing similar threats — including Waukegan, Illinois, which has a coal ash pond sitting along the lakeshore.

EPA Region 5 declined to comment until it has a chance to review the petition.

Contact reporter Rebecca Thiele at rthiele@iu.edu or follow her on Twitter at @beckythiele.

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Rebecca Thiele covers statewide environment and energy issues.