The site of a bluff collapse at the We Energies Oak Creek Power Plant in Oak Creek, Wis. is shown Monday, Oct. 31, 2011. A section of cliff the size of a football field gave way Monday at the southeastern Wisconsin power plant, 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)
The latest news out of Wisconsin, via the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, is this:
A contractor for We Energies will begin skimming fuel and floating debris either later today or early Wednesday off the surface of Lake Michigan near the site of Monday’s mudslide at the Oak Creek Power Plant.
A boom in the lake forms a semicircle 1,500 feet long and extends about 100 feet from the shoreline, forming the area that will be skimmed first, We Energies spokesman Brian Manthey said at a Tuesday afternoon news conference.
A second, longer boom will be placed further out in the lake Wednesday to contain fuel and debris that might have been carried farther into the lake.
The contractor beginning Wednesday or later in the week will go onto the water south of the plant to look for debris that may have floated toward Racine County, Manthey said.
A separate contractor was to begin building a dirt berm on top of the hill where the mudslide began to prevent rain from washing additional debris down the slope and into the lake, Manthey said. Rain is forecast Wednesday and Thursday.
So far, details to give us a better idea of the size, scope and consequences of the coal-ash spill have yet to emerge. The Associated Press reported this afternoon:
A We Energies spokeswoman says the debris that washed into Lake Michigan this week during a sudden landslide likely contains toxic coal ash … No one was hurt, but a swath of debris the size of a football field swept toward and into the water. Spokeswoman Cathy Schulze says records of land use in the area suggest there was decades-old coal ash around. She said Tuesday she didn’t immediately have further details on how much coal ash may have spilled.
Despite the lack of details, the Sierra Club was out there before 9 a.m. today with a press release, in which Mary Anne Hitt, director of the group’s Beyond Coal Campaign, called the incident a disaster — not once, but five times:
The EPA has been trying to enact new protections to stop this kind of disaster from happening again, ever since the TVA disaster in 2008, and our do-nothing Congress has been blocking them every step of the way … This disaster in the Great Lakes is a tragic reminder of why the status quo is not good enough. As long as Congress interferes, disasters like this are going to happen, and dozens of communities are at risk … This disaster shows that states are not protecting our health and our environment from cancer-causing coal ash, and as long as the EPA fails to act there will be more coal ash disasters … This disaster is particularly troublesome because We Energies has known for years that its management of coal ash at this facility was a threat to human health.
For those who haven’t heard, the Milwaukee paper’s initial news story is the best discussion I’ve seen so far of what happened:
A large section of bluff collapsed Monday next to the We Energies Oak Creek Power Plant, sending dirt, coal ash and mud cascading into the shoreline next to Lake Michigan and dumping a pickup truck, dredging equipment, soil and other debris into the lake.
There were no injuries, and the incident did not affect power output from the plant.
When the section of bluff collapsed and slid from a terraced area at the top of a hill down to the lake, Oak Creek Acting Fire Chief Tom Rosandich said, it left behind a debris field that stretched 120 yards long and 50 to 80 yards wide at the bottom.
Aerial images show a trailer and storage units holding construction equipment tumbled like Tonka toy trucks and were swept along with the falling bluff in a river of dirt that ended in the water.
Here are before-and-after photos from the AP and from We Energies:
The Milwaukee paper explained:
As a company hired by We Energies began cleanup in Lake Michigan, the utility confirmed that coal ash was part of the debris.
“Based on our land use records it is probable that some of the material that washed into the lake is coal ash,” We Energies spokesman Barry McNulty said. “We believe that was something that was used to fill the ravine area in that site during the 1950s. That’s a practice that was discontinued several decades ago.”
The Environmental Protection Agency is in the process of developing stricter regulations of coal ash following a 2008 Tennessee coal ash pond washout that created a devastating environmental disaster.
No one was inside a trailer nor three box-like storage units that were sucked up in the mudslide, which also pushed a pickup truck into Lake Michigan and destroyed a temporary tool storage shed, We Energies spokesman Brian Manthey said. Some of the equipment was being used to dredge a storm water retention pond close to the lake.
Noting that about 100 construction workers were in the area at the time of the incident just after 11 a.m. Monday, Manthey said “we’re very fortunate that there were no injuries reported.” The construction workers are not We Energies employees.
Rosandich said contractors were taking an inventory of what exactly was lost in the mud slide.
So how bad is this?
Well, along with this football-field-sized debris field, the Milwaukee paper’s account described a “fuel sheen” in the lake and also reported:
Maureen Wolff lives in Caledonia about a mile from the power plant and can see the plant’s smoke stacks from her home. She walked to the lakefront shortly after the incident and was dismayed to see lots of debris and wood floating south toward Racine. Because of the dark color of the debris, Wolff wondered if coal ash ended up in the lake.
“All this is going along the coast line and they’re telling people all it is is just a few trailers and possibly some tools. No one is saying what exactly is in it,” said Wolff, a Caledonia resident for more than 50 years.
Later Monday afternoon, We Energies confirmed that coal ash was likely in the debris.
A local environmental group leader said coal ash was disposed in multiple locations over the years, when environmental rules were much more lenient.
“We definitely want the environmental agencies and We Energies to study how much of that coal ash, if any, went into Lake Michigan because it does pose such a threat to human health and the environment,” said Cheryl Nenn, Riverkeeper with the group Milwaukee Riverkeeper.
By this afternoon, the Sierra Club had backed off its “disaster” declaration, but was still referring to this “kind of disastrous spill” in a news release picked up by Daily Kos. Discussing the matter with me via Twitter, Mary Anne Hitt said she hadn’t seen any news reports yet that estimated how much coal ash might have been involved.
Not to diminish what’s happened in Wisconsin — and we still really don’t know much about how bad it is — but let’s remember that the TVA Kingston coal-ash spill involved more than 1 billion gallons of coal-ash slurry. Eventually, the Kingston spill flooded more than 300 acres of land, damaging homes and property, and toxic ash poured into the Emory and Clinch rivers, filling large areas of the rivers and resulting in fish kills.
There was also this Sierra Club statement:
This disaster is particularly troublesome because We Energies has known for years that its management of coal ash at this facility was a threat to human health. They have even been providing bottled water to neighbors who wells have been contaminated.
What’s not said there is that the water contamination problem appears to have been linked not to the coal-ash disposal in the specific area of this week’s spill, but at one or more nearby landfills. See page 525 of this Environmental Integrity Project report.
But in today’s news cycle, and with the polarized political environment, and the non-stop media world, it’s a lot easier to get our attention if you label something with a big word. AEP chief Mike Morris himself was just telling investors and analysts the only reason EPA was working on new coal-ash regulations was “a TV event at the TVA.” And it’s obvious that the House Republicans — led by West Virginia’s own David McKinley — are trying very hard to block EPA from taking meaningful action. (See here, here and here).
Still, there are some things that we do know, and that might be learned from the We Energies coal-ash spill, whether it turns into a “TV event” or not.
First, as Earthjustice coal ash expert Lisa Evans pointed out to me this afternoon, this incident is somewhat similar to a coal-ash landslide in January 2005 in Forward Township, Pa., when thousands of tons of land-dumped ash slid down a hillside, damaging nine homes and a restaurant, and despositing large amounts of ash into yards and creeks. Later, the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Register wrote a report outlining potential health concerns for residents of the community, especially children.
Second, it’s important to know that “structural fill” like the We Energies site is among the fastest growing use for toxic coal ash from power plants. In 2009, more than 8.8 million tons of coal ash were used in fills and embankments, according to this annual report from the American Coal Ash Association. And as Lisa Evans told me:
EPA’s proposed rules would consider large unconsolidated fill sites to be disposal, so going forward this type of fill would not allowed to be created and then left unmonitored. Also, under a subtitle C rule, utilities would have to identify all of their old disposal and fill sites pursuant to CERCLA. Through identification of these large deposits, regulatory agencies would have a fighting chance at finding those sites that may pose danger, either from leaching or instability. As the law stands now, we don’t know where coal ash has been buried. Thus these large deposits pose continuing threat.
Not for nothing, but the weaker Subtitle D rule favored by some? Here’s what Lisa Evans said:
A subtitle C coal ash rule would make coal ash subject to CERCLA 103 notification requirements, which would require utilities to identify the places where coal ash has been buried. All of them. True, regulators may not actually get to accessing the danger of all of these fills and disposal sites, but a location on a bluff, next to a lake, may be the type of site that would get their attention.
Subtitle D would not require such notification of old dump and fill sites.
Two construction trailers are hung up on the rocks just east of the We Energies power plant after part of a bluff south of the power plant collapsed, sending earth and construction equipment sliding toward Lake Michigan on Monday, Oct. 31, 2011 in Oak Creek, Wis. (AP Photo/Journal Times, Scott Anderson)