Sept. 22 2010 12:00 AM

Suspicions arise that the Grand River took on coal ash in addition to sewage and storm water after Thursday’s rain

The Lansing Board of Water and Light is midway through moving 450,000 cubic yards of toxic legacy coal ash — the byproduct of burning coal that contains arsenic, mercury and boron — from its property north of Comfort Street to a safer storage facility. After Thursday’s heavy rainfall, the site showed signs of erosion, leading one nearby resident to suspect coal ash found its way to the Grand River.

BWL denies that any coal ash entered the river and that what the resident saw was just soil. BWL also denies that it’s the same soil that tested for exceedingly high levels of arsenic in 2007.

“We have a protective, earthen berm around the coal ash, and that berm was not breached by the heavy rains,” BWL spokesman Mark Nixon said in an e-mail. “No coal ash entered the Grand River.”

While BWL says there are also 2-foot-high silt-screen fences surrounding the property to protect contaminated soil from getting into the river, there were portions Friday where all that separated the river and the property was a line of trees, some grass and a broken silt fence. Nixon did not know how long ago the silt fences were installed.

Nixon acknowledged that some portions of the silt screen toppled as a result of the rain, but that it was inspected about five days before the rain and found to be in “proper working order. As a result, some soil did flow into the river. I stress the word ‘soil,’ not ash,” the e-mail said.

Susan Harley, policy director at Michigan Clean Water Action, said even if it was just soil, BWL tested that soil in 2007, which exceeded groundwater and surface water limitations for arsenic, boron, chromium and lithium, with arsenic being beyond acceptable levels for direct contact.

“How is putting arsenic directly into the Grand River not a big deal?” Harley said via e-mail.

Nixon responded that the soil used for the berm and the backfill is “clean soil obtained from Granger.”

As we stand on Niles Schonfeld’s fishing shack porch on his property at 3009 N. Grand River Ave. Thursday, the heavy rainfall that reportedly brought more than an inch in an hour was causing the Grand River to rise quickly. It had gone from thigh-deep to neck-deep in a couple of hours.

Dead tree branches from dismembered log jams floated down the milk chocolate-colored water that was filled with sediment, storm water and sewage.

The river and a small patch of woods (former wetland) is all that separates Schonfeld’s property — where he has been since 1981 — from BWL’s coal ash site.

The next day, Schonfeld and I canoed across the river to inspect the site.

Most concerning to Schonfeld was a northwestern portion of the property that forms a roughly 15-foot-wide clearing in the trees between the coal ash piles and the Grand River.

The silt fence had failed in this portion and the grass growing between the coal ash piles and the river was bent toward the river, trampled by grayish brown soil. Schonfeld scooped the soil, which was a rice pudding consistency, with his hand.

“Aw, look at that crap,” he said.

On the day the heavy rain hit, Harley was on a bus trip to Chicago with more than 50 environmental activists to attend a public hearing on federal coal ash regulations. The federal government is weighing two options for labeling coal ash that go beyond considering it the same as trash. One gives it a Subtitle C designation, which labels coal ash as a hazardous material.

She said some opposition at the public hearing came from representatives of companies who recycle coal ash for things like cement because of the negative stigma attached to a hazardous material.

Back on the northeast side of the BWL site, it was obvious where the backfill clay had overtaken the silt fence and eroded into the river. Besides being in Schonfeld’s backyard, this portion of the Grand River is a prime salmon spawning spot that will be filling up within a month, he said.

“The salmon will be here in a month, and they want clear gravel to spawn on,” Schonfeld said. “Clay is not their cup of tea, especially if there is arsenic in it,” he laughed.

Schonfeld’s attitude toward BWL and the legacy coal ash varies mid-conversation. He wishes they could have back-filled the site with gravel to make it into “a great fishing” hole like it was before they started dumping ash there in 1964. But he shifts to mildly complacent on account of those doing the dumping not knowing any better at the time.

Ultimately, Schonfeld’s faith is in the river. “This old river has been through a lot. But she’ll make it.”