Michigan City, Indiana.
Michigan City, Indiana. Credit: Lotzman Katzman / Creative Commons

When Susan Thomas moved to the northwestern Indiana lakefront town of Beverly Shores, she thought she had found a bucolic, beautiful and healthy place to retire.

She soon felt otherwise.

Thomas lives between Michigan City, where 2 million tons of toxic coal ash are stored along Lake Michigan on the grounds of a NIPSCO power plant, and the Town of Pines, which was declared a Superfund site because of groundwater contamination from coal ash.

“I’m in the middle of a sandwich of this toxic coal ash,” Thomas said. “I just wanted to be in nature — how did this happen?”

Thomas now serves as legislative coordinator for the group Just Transition Northwest Indiana. With other residents and advocacy groups, she is fighting to force the complete removal of coal ash from the Michigan City coal plant. Under the 2015 federal law regulating coal ash, NIPSCO is proposing to remove coal ash stored in five ponds at the site, but leave in place coal ash used decades prior to create land jutting out into the lake.

The federal law doesn’t address such “legacy” coal ash fills. If the ash is not removed, many fear it poses a risk of environmental and economic harm lasting far beyond the plant’s slated closure in 2028. It is an environmental justice issue, since Michigan City is home to disproportionately more people of color and low-income people than the state as a whole. Almost 30% of Michigan City residents are Black, and a quarter of residents live in poverty, according to census figures.

Groundwater near the Michigan City plant is contaminated with arsenic at levels 50 times higher than legal standards, as well as selenium and boron, according to monitoring by the state. Environmental advocates note there is no way to tell whether the contamination was caused by the coal ash slated for removal or the legacy ash. Indra Frank, environmental health and water policy director for the Hoosier Environmental Council, said the Michigan City legacy coal ash is in continuous contact with groundwater, meaning it is likely causing contamination.

Frank said that there are no private drinking water wells near the Michigan City plant, and coal ash leaking into groundwater and making its way to Lake Michigan would be diluted enough that it probably wouldn’t pose a significant risk to drinking water drawn from the lake. But toxic metals in the coal ash could be contaminating the lake sediment and bioaccumulating in lake organisms, presenting a risk to people eating fish caught near the plant — a popular fishing spot.

Meanwhile, if aging steel seawalls holding back the landfill collapse, the lake could be inundated with coal ash, possibly putting drinking water intakes at risk and necessitating a massive cleanup. The coal ash is within Lake Michigan’s flood plain; with climate change, storms that batter the seawalls and fluctuating lake levels that put pressure on them are expected to become more frequent.

A study by Kirk Engineering and Natural Resources commissioned by Earthjustice notes that the steel seawalls are aging and pose a “risk of catastrophic release to surface water if the piling were to fail from continued deterioration or flooding.”

“We are in for a roller coaster with climate change,” Thomas said. “Whatever is being held back by this wall must be included in the cleanup.”

Left out of the law

The Michigan City Generating Station opened in 1931 on the former site of an operation mining sand from the lakeshore dunes, and coal ash has been deposited ever since.

Coal ash was used to build land in the lake adjacent to the power plant, and NIPSCO began depositing coal ash in the ponds on that land in the 1970s.

The 2015 Coal Combustion Residuals federal law passed after years of contentious debate — including over whether coal ash should be labeled hazardous waste. It was ultimately designated “non-hazardous,” to the chagrin of environmental and health advocates. Under the law, companies must remove coal ash from most unlined ponds and file closure plans detailing how they will deal with coal ash when a plant closes.

The cheapest option is generally “cap in place,” wherein ash is left in place but drained and capped. This is not typically allowed when ash is in a flood plain or in contact with groundwater. However, according to a November 2020 report by the Hoosier Environmental Council, at least nine coal plants in Indiana have filed plans proposing to cap ash in place even though it is in a flood plain. At eight of those sites, ash is also in continuous contact with groundwater, the group says.

NIPSCO’s Michigan City plant is not on that list, since the coal ash covered by the 2015 law is slated for removal from the five unlined ponds, and the company isn’t required to file plans about the legacy ash.

A 2018 federal court decision demands the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulate legacy coal ash stored in impoundments or ponds, but not coal ash stored in landfills. It is unclear exactly how the Michigan City legacy coal ash would be classified. The EPA has been carrying out a rulemaking process around the court decision on legacy ash, though environmental advocates are disappointed that it is proceeding slowly and there is no deadline for implementation.

In response to public comments filed about its closure plan, NIPSCO said the legacy ash under the ponds is “outside the scope” of the federal law and state regulation.

“A significant portion of the facility was constructed on this ‘made land,’” NIPSCO said in the filings. “As stated in the closure plan, the fill material is primarily natural sand mixed with minor percentages of fly ash and boiler slag.” The Indiana Department of Environmental Management’s regulatory authority only extends to waste from Coal Combustion Residuals surface impoundments, NIPSCO said.

NIPSCO plans to dry the ash from the five surface ponds and move it to a landfill in Wheatfield, Indiana, on the site of its Schafer plant. In public comments, Wheatfield residents lamented the ash’s transfer — with one saying “we are human too” — and also voiced concerns about coal ash dust being released during transit.

Just Transition Northwest Indiana and the Citizens Action Coalition both said they will closely monitor the coal ash transport, and demand safeguards from NIPSCO.

NIPSCO declined to respond to specific questions for this story but provided a statement: “As a member of the Michigan City community, protecting human health, safety and the environment is essential. We work with IDEM [the Indiana Department of Environmental Management] and the EPA to fulfill that commitment, and we work with their expert technical staff to do what is required to ensure proper protections and to maintain compliance with state and federal requirements. Regarding the environmental work planned at the station, which is being performed in compliance with both the Federal CCR Rule [the Coal Combustion Residuals law] and a RCRA [Resource Conservation and Recovery Act] Order, the data collected to date indicates there is no risk to human health or the environment, no impacts to drinking water supplied to neighboring communities and nothing to indicate that the state’s waterways are being compromised.”

Statewide crisis

Indiana has the most coal ash repositories of any state nationwide, and most of them are unlined, like the Michigan City ponds, posing particular risk for groundwater contamination.

Legacy coal ash ponds make up about 10% of Indiana’s total coal ash ponds, according to the Hoosier Environmental Council, including at the closed Tanners Creek power plant on the Ohio River where testing has shown groundwater contamination from coal ash.

Given weaknesses in the federal law including around legacy ash, advocacy groups nationwide have pushed for stronger state regulations. But meaningful state legislation is unlikely under Indiana’s Republican-controlled legislature, many say.

“Indiana has more toxic coal ash waste pits than any state and yet our state legislators have blinders on when it comes to this issue,” Thomas said. “They will not address it.”

During the past legislative session, Indiana state Sen. Mark Messmer, a Republican and chair of the environmental committee, declined to hold a hearing on a bipartisan bill that would have forced companies to more safely store coal ash.

Illinois’s Pollution Control Board recently finalized rules implementing the state’s own coal ash law, which provides more safeguards and public input than the federal law, including around legacy coal ash.

“Coal ash in ‘legacy’ coal ash ponds is just as dangerous as coal ash in ponds at operating power plants,” said Andrew Rehn, water resources engineer with the Prairie Rivers Network in Illinois, which has long fought for cleanup of legacy coal ash threatening the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River. “There’s no reason to treat them differently.”

The federal coal ash law is largely “self-implementing,” meaning that the U.S. EPA doesn’t proactively enforce it but rather citizen lawsuits alleging violations are needed to trigger action.

The Indiana Department of Environmental Management approves coal ash repository closure plans, which are supposed to be in line with the federal rule.

Frank said that the department has approved cap-in-place plans for coal ash that is “in the flood plain with ash deep enough to be soaking in groundwater.” She said the Hoosier Environmental Council is making legal challenges to some of those approvals, alleging they violate both the federal coal ash rule and state solid waste laws.

“We really need to see secure and permanent disposal solutions,” she said. “Right now Indiana has way too many coal ash sites where disposal is going on in the flood plain and in contact with groundwater. HEC is doing everything we can to get safe and permanent disposal for Indiana, but so far it’s been an uphill battle.”

Call to action

Kerwin Olson, executive director of the Citizens Action Coalition, noted that utility CenterPoint has requested to open two new coal ash ponds at its A.B. Brown and F.B. Culley coal plants — which both have coal ash stored in flood plains and groundwater, according to the Hoosier Environmental Council.

Olson said the continued proliferation of coal ash is one more reason that the state’s heavy reliance on coal needs to end.

“The solution to the coal ash problem is to stop making it,” Olson said. “The sooner we retire these things and deal with the ash, the better.”

Phyllis DaMota is a long-time Town of Pines resident who led early efforts to uncover the extent of coal ash contamination. In response to her and other residents’ demands and efforts, people with contaminated wells were eventually connected to a municipal water system, and yards were cleaned up by NIPSCO, which had dumped ash in Town of Pines from the Michigan City plant and another plant.

DaMota said people in any community impacted by coal ash need to be vigilant and work together to protect their health and environment.

“It’s a very subtle problem — it's not a big explosion, it’s not like a tornado came through, it’s this subtle infiltration of our water to the point where all of a sudden we can’t drink that water anymore,” she said. “Businesses will put these kinds of dangerous things in communities that are less likely to fight back or have the energy or wherewithal or education to even ask the right questions. You need to be proactive. If you’re near a power plant, you need to find out where the waste is going. Sometimes you need to dig for that information.”

Correction: This article has been updated to correct Andrew Rehn's title; he is the water resources engineer for the Prairie Rivers Network.

Kari has written for the Vxartnews since January 2011. She is an author and journalist who worked for the Washington Post's Midwest bureau from 1997 through 2009. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times, Chicago News Cooperative, Chicago Reader and other publications. Based in Chicago, Kari covers Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana as well as environmental justice topics.