MILWAUKEE (AP) — Decades-old coal ash hurled from the grounds
of a Wisconsin power plant into Lake Michigan during a landslide this week
probably doesn’t pose a significant environmental risk, experts said
Officials rushed samples of tainted water and spilled ash to
laboratories to analyze the debris that plummeted onto the shore and into
the water Monday, seeking to assess the extent of any possible harm to the
lake. The ash slid into the lake when a section of cliff about the size of a
football field gave way near a We Energies plant outside Milwaukee. Company
officials said the cause hadn’t been determined.
It will take several days to complete the analysis, said
Phillippa Cannon, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency. Of particular concern were heavy metals such as arsenic, lead and
mercury found in the ash from coal incineration
About 2,500 cubic yards of ash, or enough to fill about 200
dump trucks, may have reached the water, utility spokesman Brian Manthey
The material has the potential to smother fish habitat and
pollute sediments near the lakeshore, said Val Klump, director of the Great
Lakes WATER Institute in Milwaukee. But even if a large volume got into the
water, the ecological fallout probably won’t reach far beyond the immediate
spill area, he said.
“It’s a big lake. It gets diluted pretty fast,” Klump said.
A vessel from the research institute also took samples in the
area and was analyzing them, he said. Crew members spotted a debris plume
and an oily sheen in the water.
Ann Coakley, spokeswoman for the Wisconsin Department of
Natural Resources, also said she didn’t anticipate widespread damage from
The spilled ash was generated in the 1950s, state and federal
Coakley said the heavy metals concentration could be
different from that of present-day ash because the coal burned a
half-century ago might have had different characteristics. Also, the plant
would have lacked modern emission control equipment.
She said local officials weren’t concerned about drinking
water contamination because the spill wasn’t close to Lake Michigan intake
Environmentalists said the spill illustrated the need for
strong regulation of coal ash, which is not classified as hazardous under
waste laws. They have pushed for new rules since an ash disposal pond
failure in Kingston, Tenn., flooded hundreds of acres and killed fish in
“We know coal ash contains toxic substances,” said Joel
Brammeier, president of the Chicago-based Alliance for the Great Lakes.
“The Great Lakes region is still digging out from a legacy of
contamination that’s 100 years long. We shouldn’t tie the hands of agencies
that are working to protect the lakes.”
The Republican-controlled House voted last month to put
states in charge of regulating coal ash, which would pre-empt EPA standards
that could be tougher.
Workers built earthen berms Wednesday to keep rainfall from
the debris and to prevent more of the ash from washing into the lake,
Two skimmers were cleaning the water’s surface.
The company and its contractors will stabilize the shoreline
and bluff over the next several days, Cannon said. After the area is
declared safe, additional cleanup will be done.
No one was hurt in the landslide. A pickup truck and other
equipment tumbled into the lake.