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Protecting Our Drinking Water from Toxic Coal Ash

Oak Creek Coal Ash Spill

On Monday, October 31, 2011, A partial retaining bluff collapse occurred at the We Energies Oak Creek Power Plant in Wisconsin and sent toxic coal ash spewing into Lake Michigan. This collapse comes just weeks after the U.S. House voted to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from protecting Americans from coal ash.

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.  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.

Mary Anne Hitt, Director of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign issued the statement:

"The EPA has been trying to enact national protections to stop this kind of disastrous spill from happening again, ever since the TVA disaster in 2008, and our Congress has been blocking them every step of the way. As a result, communities across the nation remain at risk and unprotected. This spill in the Great Lakes is a tragic reminder of why the status quo is not good enough.

"Just weeks ago, at the urging of We Energies and others in the coal industry, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to block the EPA from enacting strong national protections, thereby allowing states to continue the status quo that led to this disastrous collapse. This bill, called the Coal Residuals Reuse and Management Act (S.1751) is now before the Senate for consideration."

"This collapse is particularly troublesome because We Energies has known for years that its management of coal ash was a threat to human health. They have even been providing bottled water to neighbors who have contaminated wells in Caledonia, Wisconsin.

"We want to thank the first responders, cleanup and safety workers for their courage in helping to clean up this mess. We are very grateful that no one appears to have been injured. Unfortunately, residents of Southeast Wisconsin have been victims of We Energies negligence for years. The burning of coal is a public health menace. This incident underscores that as long as we are still mining and burning coal someone somewhere is paying the price."

Key Facts:

Wisconsin generates 1.4 million tons of coal ash every year, about 10% of the 131 million tons of coal ash generated nationwide.

Coal ash contains mercury, arsenic, lead and chromium, known to cause cancer, nerve damage, and other serious health problems.  Selenium from coal ash is linked to fish mutations.

Coal ash from Oak Creek has already contaminated water in SE WI, forcing We Energies to supply drinking water to the residents of Caledonia, Wisconsin. 

Click here for for the media coverage for the coal ash spill.

For more information on coal ash, click here.