Experts skeptical of BWL’s ‘naturally occurring’ boron claim

Officials also dispute 'proactive' claim over mandated testing

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TUESDAY, Feb. 22 — Regulators have ordered the Lansing Board of Water & Light to test another 60 drinking water wells for boron and other contamination suspected to stem from the Erickson Power Station’s toxic coal ash ponds. 

The decision comes as BWL has begun to claim the boron may be naturally occurring in mid-Michigan’s Saginaw aquifer from which the wells draw, and not leaking from its coal ash ponds. Experts who have reviewed test results and aquifer data say it’s possible that the boron is naturally occurring, but evidence so far suggests BWL’s coal ash is the source.  

Though drinking water wells are being tested, public health advocates said that’s not enough. Water samples from around the aquifer must be analyzed for chemical markers that will clearly determine the boron’s source, but state regulators haven’t required BWL to take that step, and the state and utility may instead base their analyses on previously published scientific literature. 

That would leave the boron’s source in doubt, experts said, and could allow BWL to use its theory to shield itself from any responsibility to clean up the water contamination. 

“It could be that those claims are true, but given that we are talking about human health and people are living here, we can't leave it as an academic question — there needs to be a serious investigation that would include water quality tests,” said Avner Vengosh, a Duke University geochemistry and water quality researcher who studies coal ash ponds around the country. 

Meanwhile some have also expressed concern over drinking water wells’ “unhealthy” lithium levels, which are just inside the federal water quality standard — though the lithium could also be naturally occurring. 

Officials discovered in early February that boron suspected of leaking from the ponds has contaminated six out of six nearby drinking water wells that BWL has so far tested. 

Significant questions about the problem’s scope remain: BWL still doesn’t have a handle on the pollution plume's size or location, how many drinking water wells are contaminated in the nearby vicinity or how long its neighbors have been drinking contaminated water. 

BWL has repeatedly claimed to be "proactively" investigating the pollution, but the utility knew about toxins leaking from its coal ash ponds as early as April 2020 and never alerted the public or its neighbors. 

It only began testing wells after the Environmental Protection Agency and Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) began enforcement action around the pollution and BWL’s failure to respond.

EGLE officials told City Pulse that BWL is not acting “proactively” — the agency is requiring BWL to test and provide drinking water to impacted homes and businesses as part of a draft consent order that will legally require the utility to take the steps it’s now taking. 

Regulators say the utility violated a litany of state and federal clean water rules, and it faces the possibility of fines or other penalties. Among violations at the state level are a failure to prevent groundwater contamination, obtain proper licenses and keep a proper distance between the ponds and groundwater. The state also cited BWL for a failure to install proper pond liners, which are designed to prevent pollution near the Erickson Power Station site. 

Federal coal ash rules also required utilities to start testing water in 2017, but BWL did not begin doing so until 2020. 

“BWL's three-year delay in sampling the groundwater, in violation of the federal rule, endangered nearby residents,” said Lisa Evans, an attorney with national environmental group Earthjustice who has been monitoring the issue. “BWL's subsequent failure to comply with the federal rule's mandate to immediately determine the nature and extent of the pollution, and warn nearby residents, is at the core of the present problem.”

In 2020, BWL detected high levels of lithium, boron, TDS, molybdenum and other chemicals leaching from the three ponds, and though it’s unclear exactly when those leaks started, the plant has operated the ponds since 1974.

BWL didn’t respond to questions about why it didn’t alert residents sooner.

Dozens of active residential and commercial private wells are down gradient from the ponds, EPA documents showed. And most pull water from the bedrock aquifer. 

Well tests detected boron at levels between 2.48 mg/L and 4.17 mg/L. Michigan hasn’t set health limits on boron in drinking water, though groundwater limits of 0.5 mg/L are in place — based on plant toxicity, not human health. 

EPA has an unenforceable “health advisory” drinking water limit of 6 mg/L for adults and 3 mg/L for children. Boron has been linked to developmental and reproductive toxicity, low birth weight and testicular shrinkage. 

Research shows that boron is also phytotoxic at low levels, and EGLE has said it fears the toxin may harm plant life in nearby wetlands. It’s likely, however, that the contamination would be diluted by the time it travels to larger waterways and won’t cause problems downstream.

The EPA wrote in an email to City Pulse that it doesn’t comment on ongoing investigations.

EGLE officials said they are also requiring BWL to drill additional monitoring wells into the aquifer to help determine the contamination plume’s size and location. The utility must continue to dig new wells further out from the ponds until it no longer detects pollution. 

The investigation process could take months.

In the meantime, regulators said they have ordered BWL to alert owners of the 60 drinking wells northeast of Erickson’s coal ash ponds to the potential contamination. Rules also required BWL to provide bottled water to those with confirmed boron contamination, EGLE officials said.  BWL may also run municipal water lines to the homes.

In a statement to City Pulse, a BWL spokesperson said the utility company has “worked directly with the well owners, including sending our general manager, Dick Peffley, to speak with them directly" and that "each of the owners have been very appreciative of BWL’s responsiveness and transparency to the situation." 

Naturally occurring boron and lithium?

EGLE Spokesperson Hugh McDiarmid wrote in an email that the agency is "not sure if the elevated boron in the residential wells is due to contamination from the Erickson site or not” because boron is also a naturally occurring element that has been detected at higher-than-normal levels in the Saginaw aquifer. 

The aquifer once held salt water, which can have higher levels of boron. McDiarmid pointed to scientific literature that found naturally occurring levels as high as 6.4 mg/L. Determining the source will require “additional investigation,” he said. 

“To do this, BWL is installing additional monitoring wells onsite, as well as searching for additional existing data for boron occurrence in the Saginaw aquifer, and other potential sources of boron in the area,” he added. 

But the investigations should also include water sampling that checks for salinity, isotope ratios and other markers that would clearly tell whether the boron came from ash or was naturally occuring, Duke’s Vengosh added. 

Evaluating the water quality of wells located near and away from the coal ash site is a quite simple task and (regulators and BWL) should provide that data rather than using ‘literature’ to prove their point,” he said. 

EGLE said it’s up to BWL to determine the boron’s source, and EGLE will “vet” BWL’s science and enforce state regulations.

Evans said the boron may be naturally occurring in the deeper aquifer, but stressed that BWL and EGLE are legally obligated to to “aggressively test wells until they determine the extent of the contamination.” 

“The law requires them to test so why are they going to the library when they need to be sinking wells or testing drinking water?” Evans asked.

Available evidence also pointed to the coal ash ponds. 

It’s extremely rare to find naturally occurring levels of boron as high as what has been detected in the drinking water wells, Vengosh noted. And though the aquifer from which the wells are drawing does have a history of high levels of naturally occurring boron, a “statistically valid” sample of water collected from around the aquifer around 20 years ago found those levels near Williamston — not near the plant, he added. 

The presence of lithium and other coal ash contaminants in drinking water wells also suggests  the toxins may have migrated from the ash. 

Evans  said BWL’s monitoring wells that check for the “background” levels of toxins near Lansing showed much lower levels of boron than what’s in the drinking water wells. Meanwhile, monitoring wells placed between the pond and wells show elevated levels of boron, suggesting the presence of a plume.

Beyond drinking water, the contamination is already in groundwater and surface water, which are connected to the aquifers that feed the drinking water wells. 

Pollution in each type of water presents separate sets of problems — each demanding different remedies. Groundwater contamination may require BWL to extract water and either dispose of it or treat it and re-inject it, EGLE officails have said previously. 

Surface water — which includes wetlands, streams, rivers and lakes — could also be contaminated by the coal ash ponds. EGLE is also forcing BWL to test a groundwater-fed wetland down gradient from the ponds. Fish could be another potential exposure pathway for humans.

BWL’s PR contradicts state regulators

BWL has repeatedly made claims about the investigation process that directly contradict statements made by EGLE. In other instances, utility spokesperson Amy Adamy and General Manger Dick Peffley have made statements that appear to downplay the situation’s gravity. 

Most notably, the utility wrote in a recent press release and continues to insist in emails sent to City Pulse that it is “proactively” testing wells and investigating the contamination.

BWL "proactively tested the private wells as part of its ongoing groundwater investigation associated with the coal ash impoundment,” the utility wrote in its Feb. 11 press release.  

When City Pulse pointed out to Peffley and Adamy that their statement appeared to contradict what regulators have said, Adamy doubled down: “The regulating agencies have not required the BWL to test the six wells.”

But an EGLE spokesperson on Friday confirmed that the agency is requiring BWL to test drinking water and take other investigative and remedial steps as part of a draft consent order. 

EGLE’s McDiarmid salso pelled those out in a January email summarizing what the agency is requiring of BWL. 

“As part of the remedial investigation required by EGLE, LBWL must perform a thorough analysis of all drinking water wells which may have potential to be impacted by contamination,” McDiarmid wrote. 

The requirements aren’t just limited to drinking water testing, he added, noting “BWL is working through the remedial investigation process as required by EGLE,” and “BWL must complete the required remedial investigation and remedial action processes” in order to get into compliance with the law. 

Even when presented with EGLE’s statements, Adamy insisted the agency is wrong and continued to claim BWL is taking "proactive" steps. She then wrote that BWL would no longer respond to questions from City Pulse. 

And though BWL claimed in its press release that it is providing bottled water to residents with contaminated water "out of an abundance of caution," public health advocates say state rules also require it to be done.

In January, BWL officials launched an attack on City Pulse' credibility for sounding the alarm about the potential for contaminated groundwater and drinking water supplies, and denied that drinking water was contaminated. 

“The reporter … speculated that groundwater contamination might be impacting wells, despite the lack of any evidence to support such a claim,” Peffley wrote in an op-ed. 

BWL has also repeatedly said that its water is safe, writing in its January op-ed that “it important for City Pulse readers to understand that BWL water continues to meet or exceed all drinking water quality standards established by (regulators).”

“We want to reassure our customers that BWL’s water supply, which includes Delta Township and Westside Water, has not been impacted by any contamination at the Erickson site,” Peffley added.

While technically true, the statement ignored the potential for contamination at dozens of private wells that provide drinking water for hundreds of people near Erickson.

EPA documents also show that BWL has claimed to be in compliance with the federal coal ash rules. The rules were violated when BWL failed to test for contamination in 2017 and alert neighbors to the issue in 2020, Evans said.

“It's a shame because this was preventable,” Evans said. 

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