Sept. 8 2010 12:00 AM

How the Lansing Board of Water and Light is making good on nearly 15 years of careless dumping of coalburning byproducts

Between 1964 and 1978, the Lansing Board of Water and Light heedlessly dumped about 450,000 cubic yards of coal ash into a large gravel-lined hole — once a swimming site – at the north end of Comfort Street in north Lansing. Such dumping by coal-burning utilities throughout the country was common at the time.

That practice would be unthinkable now. New studies show that in such large quantities, coal ash (the leftovers of burned coal) contains toxic levels of materials such as mercury, arsenic, lithium and boron. When dumping sites are located near rivers and underground aquifers, these dangerous materials are liable to leach into the water supply, causing a “plume.”

Over the past year, about 40 percent of that legacy coal ash was transferred to one of two Granger andfills in the area. The rest will be moved within the next two years at a rate of roughly 1,000 cubic yards per day (depending on the weather) and a price of about $3 million.

BWL started moving the coal ash on Comfort Street last year after discovering toxic substances were leaching into groundwater in 2007, George Stojic, BWL’s planning director, said.

Stojic said the Comfort Street cleanup was prompted by a couple of concerns. One is that a similar dumping ground near Lake Lansing Road and Wood Street leached trace metals into an underground aquifer as the water table rose, he said, and it turned out the same is happening at Comfort Street. “There was some leaching at Comfort Street into the upper aquifer, so we needed to move on it,” Stojic said.

Another concern is Comfort Street’s close proximity to the Grand River, he said.

At the Lake Lansing site, BWL started building an impervious clay wall around the toxic material in 2006 to stop it from leaching into the water. The wall is finished, but studies continue to see if it is working.

Stojic said that same containment method would not work with Comfort Street. With it being so close to the Grand River, BWL could not take the risk of that wall breaking. “That would not be wise,” Stojic said. “It could be a disaster.” So moving the coal ash became necessary.

BWL’s 2007 feasibility study estimated that the ash is up to 29 feet thick in some places, buried up to 31 feet below the surface.

That study also concluded that aluminum, arsenic, boron and lithium were four of 15 “contaminants of concern” that “pose a variety of risks to public health and/or the environment.” In all, BWL estimated more than 140 million gallons of groundwater would require management. The report added that, ultimately, the roughly 60 acres being excavated at Comfort Street would be available for residential use.

The BWL is partnering with Granger on the Comfort Street project. There are two landfills in the area with special holding “cells” made with an impervious lining meant to withhold materials like coal ash, Granger spokeswoman Tanya Olson said.

She said Granger is prepared to take less than 500,000 cubic yards of coal ash from both the Comfort Street site and from current production at the Eckert Station. (One-third of coal ash from current production is recycled and used to make cement.). She said there would be “no problem” for Granger to handle the coal ash from Comfort Street, even though “there is only so much landfill space.”

One of the landfills on West Grand River Highway in Watertown Township opened in 1973 and takes up 180 acres. It will reach capacity in about 25 years, Olson said. The second landfill on Wood Street in north Lansing was built in 1984 over 335 acres and won’t reach capacity for at least 60 years.

Federal regulations on coal ash have been non-existent until now, but waste handling, electricity and environmental representatives say that is likely to change soon. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has public hearings scheduled throughout September across the country to hear input on coal ash regulation.

A report released in August by the Environmental Integrity Project, Earthjustice and the Sierra Club revealed 39 sites in 21 states, including Michigan, where coal ash contaminated ground water in excess of EPA standards.

Susan Harley, policy director at Michigan Clean Water Action, said it’s a hot time to be following coal ash from an environmentalist’s point of view. She plans to attend the EPA hearing in Chicago Sept. 16. She accepts the fact that no one really understood the dangers of thoughtlessly disposing coal ash in the past and is glad to see BWL remove it.

“We are definitely concerned that it’s there and that it has gone so long without coming to the public’s attention,” she said. “We support moving it as expediently as possible.”

A potential game-changer that the EPA is considering would be to re-label coal ash from a non-hazardous material to hazardous. A designation like that would prohibit Granger from taking the material, but it is yet unknown what would happen to the coal ash it already stores.

At a city of Lansing Public Safety Committee public hearing in mid-July, BWL and a representative from the county health department gave an update on the progress at Comfort Street and heard concerns the public had.

Some who live in the area accused BWL of unnecessarily cutting down trees to remove the coal ash and generally keeping neighbors in the dark about what was going on in north Lansing. BWL maintained it was simply making room for what it had to do.

First Ward Lansing City Councilman Eric Hewitt, who sits on the Public Safety Committee, attended the hearing in July and expressed concern about Granger’s handling a material that in the near future it might be unable to. “The coal ash move (to Granger from Comfort Street) is legal, but is it safe?” Hewitt asked. “The EPA obviously thinks it could be a problem.”