IN THIS EPISODE:
Investigating the complicated policy and impacts of coal ash in the Great Lakes through the student reporting initiative, “Poisonous Ponds: Tackling Toxic Coal Ash.” Coal ash threats on Lake Michigan, ideas for beneficial reuse and more in this special collaboration with Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications.
This month’s episode is a collaboration between Great Lakes Now, the Energy News Network and students at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Meet all the student journalists HERE, and find their work below.
Here are the basics that will help you understand this looming threat.
Industries rely on “beneficial use” of coal power’s toxic byproduct. Will stepped-up enforcement of federal rules interfere?
North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia are proving it is possible for utilities to remove massive quantities of coal ash from ponds where it endangers groundwater, placing it in safer lined landfills. This could be a model for other states, but challenges remain.
Lincoln Stone Quarry holds millions of tons of toxic coal ash. Despite evidence of groundwater contamination, its owner plans to leave the ash in place. But recent signs of federal enforcement may provide a glimmer of hope to residents and environmental groups.
Rising waters, sinking feeling: From the Great Lakes to the Ohio River, climate change puts coal ash impoundments at risk
More frequent flooding multiplies the risk that coal ash will contaminate rivers, lakes and groundwater. Experts say the time to act is now.
Residents want regulators to force the bitcoin miner that took over an old coal plant to clean up coal ash contaminating water.
Leaking landfills: Unregulated coal ash poses a buried, brewing threat to Lake Michigan and beyond, new lawsuit says
As the EPA steps up enforcement of coal ash regulations, environmentalists demand action on historic coal ash not covered by those rules.
The EPA says it is getting serious about enforcing federal coal ash rules. But massive challenges remain, from recalcitrant state regulators to environmental justice conundrums to ballooning costs for ratepayers.
WHERE WE TAKE YOU IN AUGUST
GREAT LAKES LEARNING:
Explore this month’s hands-on lesson plans designed to help your middle schoolers understand the Great Lakes — all at home or in the classroom. They’re aligned to education standards AND free to download.Lesson Plans
Have a question about the Great Lakes or life in the region?
Ask Great Lakes Now, and if we can answer it, we might loop it into our coverage so others can learn too.Submit Your Question
When to Watch?
Check your local station for when Great Lakes Now is on in your area.
Premieres on DPTV
Wednesday, August 31, at 7:30 PM
STATIONS CARRYING THE SERIES
Bad Axe, Michigan
Bowling Green, Ohio
Buffalo, New York
East Lansing, Michigan
Grand Rapids, Michigan
Green Bay, Wisconsin
La Crosse, Wisconsin
Menomonie-Eau Claire, Wisconsin
Mt. Pleasant, Michigan
Park Falls, Wisconsin
South Bend, Indiana
Syracuse, New York
University Center, Michigan
Watertown, New York for Ontario signal
Watertown, New York for U.S. signal
Coal Ash and Communities
SEGMENT 1 | Waukegan, Illinois; Oak Creek, Wisconsin; Kingston, Tennessee
The industrial history of Great Lakes communities was largely fueled by coal, and reminders of the era remain.
Numerous coal ash ponds are located around the region and hold the remains generated by these power sources. Coal ash is toxic, containing mercury, cadmium, arsenic and other heavy metals.
A Tennessee coal ash disaster in 2008 got a lot of people concerned about coal ash: some 7.3 million tons of coal ash went gushing out of an earthen dam covering 300 acres in Kingston. The spill is considered the largest in history, and of the roughly 900 laborers hired to clean up the mess, more than 50 have died.
Could a Tennessee style catastrophe happen at one of these sites in the Great Lakes? The answer is: It already did … but on a smaller scale.
In October 2011, a hillside collapsed at the Oak Creek Power Plant just south of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The collapse sent dirt, trucks, trailers and coal ash into Lake Michigan. It created a debris field about 100-yards long and 80-feet wide. Luckily, no one was injured.
A few miles south on the Lake Michigan shoreline is the town of Waukegan, Illinois, population about 89,000, where several coal ash sites sit about 100 yards from Lake Michigan. Residents worry they threaten drinking water as well as the Great Lake.
“Waukegan has suffered from industrial pollution. We have five superfund sites,” said Dulce Ortiz, a lifelong resident and community activist. “So we’ve seen the horrors that these companies have done to our community.”
Here is other Great Lakes Now work on industry on the Great Lakes:
SEGMENT 2 | Town of Pines, Indiana
The United States has been burning coal as a fuel source for more than a century, and for every load of coal burned, a pile of coal ash is left behind.
It’s estimated that more than 2.5 billion tons of coal ash are sitting in landfills and ash ponds across the country. This raises a lot of concern for people who view coal ash as a potentially harmful and toxic material.
“Coal naturally contains lots of heavy metals. And when you take it out of the ground and when you burn it, you concentrate those heavy metals,” says Lisa Evans, an attorney with Earthjustice. “When it’s concentrated in the ash, that it’s going to get into the environment if you don’t dispose of it properly.”
But the good news is that coal ash can be kept out of the trash and put to use in materials like concrete and drywall.
“We have an opportunity to do some really good things from an environmental standpoint, to improve our situation in terms of disposal, reduce the amount of material in landfills and ponds, and improve the performance of our infrastructure,” says Thomas Adams, executive director of the American Coal Ash Association.
Here is other Great Lakes Now work on reuse:
The Catch: News about the Lakes You Love
SEGMENT 3 | Dresden, New York; Joliet, Illinois
Keep up with the Great Lakes’ biggest issues. Find out how environmental challenges are impacting your enjoyment of the outdoors and the health of the ecosystem. Go beyond the headlines with reporters from around the region.
Learn about the lakes you love in Great Lakes Now’s newest segment – The Catch. This month: student reporting about coal ash from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.
First up, journalist and recent Medill graduate Sruthi Gopalakrishnan has a story about a bitcoin mining operation in Dresden, New York. The plant, which is near the shores of New York’s largest Finger Lake, Seneca Lake, is called Greenidge Generation. Housed in a former coal-fired plant, the bitcoin mining operation is energy intensive. Although the plant now burns natural gas, some of the ash left over from the plant’s days burning coal now sits in an unlined pond, just a short distance from Seneca Lake — and some locals are concerned about water pollution.
Next, Medill journalism student Sarah Aie has been reporting about a former limestone quarry in Joliet, Illinois, about 30miles from Lake Michigan. Owned by energy company NRG, the quarry holds more than 6 million tons of coal ash. Environmental lawyers, activists and residents are pushing for this coal ash to be completely removed from the quarry and transported to a safer landfill.
Finally, we go to Chicago, where recent Medill journalism grad Diana Leane offers up a national overview of the complications around coal ash regulation. For years, coal ash has been disposed of in the ground, and some of it has been scattered on land. For many years there were few or no regulations or oversight, but that changed in 2015 when the EPA established some.
However, the regulations are murky, and while this ash sits in more than 700 impoundment lots around the country, there’s a risk that the toxins will leach into groundwater potentially impacting nearby residents’ water supplies.
Videos from Episode 2208
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How coal ash is threatening Lake Michigan, ideas for beneficial coal ash reuse and The Catch.
Saving salamanders, how Great Lakes ports fit into global shipping and The Catch.
Controlling invasive sea lamprey, hazards in our homes, and a Great Lakes news update.
The Great Lakes News Collaborative looks at the cost of water in the region and beyond.
A giant fungus in a tiny Great Lakes town, gangsters vacation “Up North,” and “The Catch.”
Sailing on ice, Lake Ontario winter surfing and three Lake Michigan news stories.
The science of shrinking ice coverage, Great Lakes ice fishing and skating on wild ice.
Lighthouse preservation, community renewal, and sturgeon teach Native American culture.
Plovers nest on a Chicago beach, suckers spawn in Wisconsin, and storms rage in Duluth.
Greener shipping in Indiana, the Benton Harbor lead crisis and water safety in Ontario.
Can two Great Lakes mayors with opposing views agree on how to protect the region’s water?
Building boats, cleaning up trash and uncovering amazing fossils around the Great Lakes.
Birds vs. buildings in Chicago, algae blooms on Lake Superior, and aquariums re-open.
Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ administration is trying again to limit the levels of a group of chemicals known as PFAS in Wisconsin’s groundwater.
Catch the latest in Great Lakes energy news in Great Lakes Now’s biweekly headline roundup.
State regulators on Monday ordered a Flint chemical company to truck wastewater to a water treatment plant, weeks after it was blamed for an oily discharge in the Flint River.
Great Lakes Now’s Gary Wilson recently talked with the author about his latest book release, Half Wild: People, Dogs and Environmental Policy.
The Great Lakes Now Series is produced by Rob Green and Sandra Svoboda.