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Home > Issues > Beyond Fossil Fuels to Clean Energy > Moving Beyond Coal > Coal Ash

Coal Ash in Wisconsin:

Wisconsin generates 1.4 million tons of coal ash every year. There are 15 different coal ash sites in Wisconsin, five of which have one or more landfills.  Coal ash contamination is known to cause cancer, nerve damage, and other serious health problems.  People living within one mile of a coal ash site have a 1 in 50 risk of cancer. (see chart below)  Selenium from coal ash is linked to fish mutations.  Fish have even been born with two eyes on one side of the head as a result of increased selenium. 


Dairyland proposed coal ash dump Stoneman leaking cadmium and chromium; pg 6 E.J. Stoneman leaking chromium and cadmium; pg 6 S.S. Badger dumps flyash in Lake Michigan Town of Wilson contamination Columbia poisoning Wisconsin River; Pg 257 Oak Creek Spill into Lake Michigan Caledonia wells poisoned with molybdemum

What is coal ash?

Coal ash is the term for the remaining waste left in an air control product or ‘scrubber’.  These scrubbers collect the elements that we don’t want to go into the air, such as mercury, arsenic, selenium, and molybdenum .  This concentration of heavy metals and other coal leftovers is referred to as coal ash. 


Coal Ash in Wisconsin:

For the first time in history, the EPA decided to create protections against coal ash.  The House of Representatives created legislation that would prevent the EPA from being able to regulate coal combustion wastes (or coal ash or CCW).  Representative Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) voted for this legislation, stating that “regulations in Wisconsin are considered the gold standard for handling CCW.  Our state has no wet impoundments...there are no hazardous waste dumps, and the dry CCW landfills are properly lined and monitored.” Wisconsin's 'gold standard' has lead to poisoned wells, illness and disease, coal ash catastrophes and more.

Caledonia (near Racine)

Residents in Caledonia, a rural town near Oak Creek, have been unable to drink their well water for over a year.  In September of 2010, dozens of wells were found to have excess levels of molybdenum and the DNR advised the residents not to use their water for cooking or drinking.  Excess molybdenum can lead to gout, slow growth, anemia, and increased levels of uric acid.  Although the link between the the levels of molybdenum and the three coal ash landfills from the Oak Creek power plant nearby has not been confirmed, We Energies has been supplying bottled water to the residents with tainted wells.  Although the bottled water is helpful, residents are left with decreased property values, an inability to sell their homes, uncertainty and concern; some residents were not part of the agreement to buy bottled water and are supplying their own.

Wilson (near Sheboygan)

The people of the Town of Wilson have not been able to get answers about their drinking water, nonetheless bottled (or drinkable) water.  After rising cancer rates and illness and citizen testing, the residents began questioning whether their water may be contaminated.  When renewing the permit for the landfills, the Town of Wilson asked that Alliant Energy begin testing Boron and Cadmium 6.  As a result of their concerns, Alliant Energy sued the town challenging their testing requirements.  The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has not taken any action.

Oak Creek (click here for more info)

In November, we saw a much bigger cause for concern over water quality.  A coal ash ravine that was created in the 1950’s on the shore of Lake Michigan, spilled over.  Preliminary thoughts were that a storm water retention pond leaked into the landfill.  On October 31, the bluff containing the coal ash collapsed.  Approximately 25,000 cubic yards of coal ash spilled out of the containment; it’s estimated that ¼ of that spilled into Lake Michigan.

The complete effects will probably never be known: it could mean contaminated ground water and beaches; it could mean drinking water filled with selenium, molybdenum, or other poisonous heavy metals; and it could mean our national treasure, Lake Michigan, polluted with hundreds of pounds of mercury and now toxic fish.

Worse was the DNR’s initial response.  Concerned residents were not able to find out if the water was being tested, where it was being tested and so forth.  In the papers the DNR just said everything would be fine, without any details or explanation.  It quickly became clear that the utilities and DNR were much too cavalier about toxic coal ash.

S. S. Badger

There are also many disasters waiting to happen.  The S.S. Badger is a ferry that takes passengers over Lake Michigan from Manitowoc to Ludington, Michigan.  It is the last coal-fired ferry in Wisconsin and as a result, produces coal ash.  Every day it’s in operation, it dumps almost four tons of coal ash into Lake Michigan.  That is 310 tons of mercury-, lead- and arsenic- filled coal ash that goes into Lake Michigan unnecessarily every year.

Finally, the EPA decided to do something about the S.S. Badger and asked them to comply with the Clean Water Act.  In 2008, the EPA gave the ferry four years to upgrade the boilers to something cleaner.  Instead of complying, the S.S. Badger applied to be declared as a National Landmark by the US Park Service in order to be exempted from the Clean Air Act.  In November, U.S. Reps. Bill Huizenga and Dan Benishek from Michigan and Tom Petri from Wisconsin, added an amendment to the Coast Guard budget that would prohibit the EPA from forcing compliance from any ship “on, or nominated for inclusion on” the list of landmarks to protect it.  If the S.S. Badger does not get cleaned up, the effects will be horrendous and could devastate Lake Michigan forever. 

and More

In Pardeeville, test results have shown that the part of the Wisconsin River in the area has deficient levels of aquatic insects, which has been linked to coal ash from the Columbia power plant.  Dairyland Power Cooperative planned upgrades which would have led to additional coal ash.  Their solution was to create a landfill in the La Farge, the heart of organic farming in Wisconsin.  Residents understood the potential destruction and fought the landfill and were able to persevere; Dairyland continued to use the previously existing coal ash ponds near their Genoa Generating Station.  Of course, the people living near these ponds have their own health concerns.  In Green Bay, they are in the process building sledding hills for the community out of toxic coal ash.

The list of tragedies and tragedies-waiting-to-happen goes on, but the point is clear.  It doesn’t matter where it is, who owns it, or the cause of the accident.  Coal ash is toxic and dangerous and Wisconsin residents have not been properly protected.  What else needs to happen before we decide to put the health of our neighbors and environment before the profits of the fossil fuel industry?

The solution is simple.  We need to move beyond coal. If we move beyond coal, we would not have coal ash, we would not have tons and tons (literally) of carbon dioxide coming from coal stacks, we would not have mercury, soot and smog (the primary cause of environmentally-linked asthma), and the other pollutants that come from the stacks, and we would be moving towards clean energy solutions that will help the local economy.

Ways to Take Action:

More information on Coal Ash Risks:

  • For anyone that doesn't believe something until it's on TV, here you go! 60 Minutes did an incredibly compelling story on coal ash.

  • For our coal ash fact sheet, click here.