Nov. 17 2010 12:00 AM

Breached fences, soil samples indicate coal ash laden with arsenic and mercury entered the Grand River from Lansing Board of Water and Light property

Soil laden with arsenic and mercury appears to have run off during a rainstorm from a Lansing Board of Water and Light facility into the Grand River in Lansing.

An MSU scientist who analyzed the results of a soil test for City Pulse said the arsenic content was about three times higher than the high end of the safe range in soil, while mercury was at the high end of normal.

The runoff came from BWL’s property at the north end of Comfort Street where the publicly owned utility is storing coal ash, which is the byproduct of burning coal that contains elevated levels of arsenic, mercury and lead.

City Pulse collected the sample on Sept. 17, the day after a torrential rainstorm. City Pulse took it from the river side of a broken silt fence that was supposed to prevent runoff. The sample was from a stream of soil that ran into the river.

In September, BWL denied coal ash eroded into the river. At the time, BWL said that rain and “clean backfill soil” had toppled the fence.

Stephen Boyd, a professor of crop and soil sciences at MSU, analyzed the soil test results that MSU Extension sent to A&L Great Lakes Laboratories in Indiana at City Pulse’s request.

Boyd said the “normal” range for arsenic in soil is between one and 50 parts per million (ppm), while for mercury it’s between .03 and .6 ppm. Those are figures from about six different academic sources, he added.

The results showed arsenic at 119 ppm and mercury just below .59 ppm.

“Those two definitely seem to be elevated relative to values found in typical soil, ” Boyd said.

While lead and sulfur were also detected in the sample, the levels were not as alarming as those for mercury and arsenic, Boyd said.

Chuck Bennett, a water specialist with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment, said there was “very little evidence there had been material discharged from that site.”

However, Bennett did not formally inspect the area until six days after the rainstorm. He said “it’s possible” that evidence of runoff could have disappeared in that time.

A BWL inspector checked the site on the same day soil samples were collected and confirmed the fence was breached in two areas by “clean backfill,” but it is not clear if he inspected the site where coal ash appeared to reach the river.

The broken silt fence in question was replaced Sept. 20, according to BWL.

No one was on site during the storm to witness the erosion — nor is it possible to determine how much flowed in — but its close proximity to the river suggests, in the least, weak barriers for holding it back.

“We don’t believe any ash from our excavation got into the river, and we’re very convinced of that,” said George Stojic, BWL planning director. “However, I do believe we probably are more sensitive now to weather events and we’d like to get out there as soon as possible to make sure nothing happens.”

There was once 450,000 cubic yards of coal ash sitting at the roughly 60-acre site on Lansing’s north side. BWL has voluntarily moved roughly 270,000 cubic yards to “sealed cells” owned by Granger, a hauling and landfill company, that would prevent contaminants from migrating through groundwater, as is the concern at Comfort Street. The excavation will cost BWL about $3 million and is scheduled to be finished next fall.

Despite showing a BWL representative exactly where the sample was taken, BWL would not comment on the test results because they “did not see where they were taken” or “at what time.”

Ingham County Drain Commissioner Pat Lindemann said that regardless if coal ash, or any soil, eroded into the river, the task at hand is preventing it from happening in the future.

“I don’t know if this is an accident or not,” Lindemann said. “It doesn’t matter. It’s not a witch-hunt here. If it’s an issue, it will be corrected in the future. That’s a good thing.”

Lindemann said erosion from this site “probably happened” before the public knew the dangers of what was sitting so close to the Grand River. “No one cared — but people care now.”

Michael Allen, a toxicologist with the Ingham County Health Department, said elevated levels of mercury and arsenic pose their own “specific threats.” Arsenic, an odor-less and tasteless semi-metal, if consumed in drinking water, can cause skin damage or circulatory problems.

Mercury negatively affects neurological development, especially in children.

Allen added that coal ash can devastate stream habitats, but only in large quantities, like a couple of thousand tons. “Without an actual embankment collapse,” Allen said referring to the Comfort Street site, “I’m not overly concerned about it.”

A broader question BWL faces is: Are the 2-foot-high silt fences lining the property enough to hold back coal ash in the event of heavy rainfall?

Stojic said there will be a review process to see how effective the silt fences are. He also said he does not anticipate another rain event like Sept. 16 “that would undermine our efforts.”

Next spring and summer will be a test for BWL’s preventive measures. As the excavation moves from the east side of the property to the west (where the sample was taken), the land topography falls off toward the river. Excavating the land makes it easier for soil to travel, especially during rainstorms.

“We will be improving our process to make sure nothing happens and nothing washes into the river,” Stojic said, referring to earthen “berms” that will get built up, as is the case on the north side of the property.

The future of coal ash regulation in the U.S.
is uncertain. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is considering
an option to label it a hazardous waste, which would impose tighter
disposal regulations on companies like BWL. In fact, BWL must submit a
report by Friday to EPA detailing how it would manage it if coal ash
were labeled hazardous.

environmental group Sierra Club launched a hotline Nov. 8 for the
public to report suspected coal ash contaminations in waterways
nationwide. The group was also co-author of a report that documents more than
100 cases in which coal ash was found to be leaking into waterways,
including at the Consumers Energy J.R. Whiting Plant near Monroe.

washout in December 2008 in Tennessee caused roughly 1 billion gallons
of coal ash to flood from an above-ground storage site on 84 acres, the
largest coal related spill in U.S. history. The Tennessee Valley
Authority, who owned the property, said the spill was likely a result
from heavy rain and cold temperatures, which caused an embankment to