Delay and denial in Pines

A small Indiana town is stuck in a slow-motion cleanup of coal ash pollution.

April 8, 2013

(Photo courtesy of Andre Perez/andrealanperez.com)
NIPSCO's Michigan City Generating Station is the source of much of the coal ash that contaminated Pines’ groundwater.

The Town of Pines, Ind., is an unassuming place. There’s no factory or skyline to compete with the smoky towers of Gary and nearby Michigan City. Sitting at the edge of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, Pines is home to just over 700 people, two gas stations, one church and one bank. It’s easy to miss unless you're looking for it, as it's tucked among groves of trees along U.S. Highway 12.

Pines does, however, have a landmark of sorts.

The unceremoniously-named Yard 520 is an out-of-use landfill that sits kitty-corner from Pines' public park. There's no household garbage under the yard's rolling expanse of green grass; instead, the landfill holds an estimated 1.5 million tons of ash from coal burned at a Michigan City power plant, which sits about three miles away. Half of Yard 520’s fill is unlined.

The ash dumping in Yard 520 started almost fifty years ago. Twelve years ago, the town learned the water was contaminated with pollutants that can leach from coal ash. Nine years ago, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency declared most of Pines a cleanup site. And still today, the Pines cleanup is a web of distrust between residents, the companies responsible for the ash and the EPA.

“My husband and I bought our home here to raise our family,” said Cathi Murray, the vice president of Pines’ town council. “We thought we found our own little piece of paradise. Well, it turns out to be pretty much our own little piece of hell.”

Pines' blue lawn ornaments

The people in Pines first learned there was a problem in 2000, when a resident tasted something funny in her well water and complained to environmental authorities. After that, the Indiana Department of Environmental Management and the EPA conducted tests that turned up elevated levels of manganese, boron, molybdenum, arsenic and lead. Residents and their environmentalist allies spent years agitating over the issue, and the EPA made almost the entire town a cleanup site in 2004.

For Murray, the damage was already done. She had moved to Pines with her husband years earlier and put down roots, working as a school teacher and raising two kids. She'd already spent a decade drinking tap water that came straight out of the ground in Pines; while she was pregnant, she says, she swore off pop and coffee and drank only well water.

"So I have an older daughter who was born with a rare bowel disorder, and I have a younger daughter who was born hearing impaired," she said. "Do you think I will ever stop wondering, did the water I drink have anything to do with that?”

The EPA began circling around a suspect: coal combustion waste, or coal ash, the material stored in Yard 520. The presumption was that as water struck underground ash deposits, it would pick up traces of arsenic, boron, and other elements that can be dangerous if consumed at high levels. The contaminated water would continue moving underground, only to be drawn into residents' drinking wells.

NIPSCO, the utility that had dumped most of the ash, and the landfill owner, Brown, agreed to pipe in municipal water from Michigan City to two separate parts of Pines. After residents without municipal water (including Murray) sued the companies, they extended the water lines to most of the town under a new agreement with the EPA. About 50 homes in Pines still have no access to the new municipal pipes. For the past nine years they've drunk bottled water provided by the companies; today you can spot big, blue containers on some homes’ front lawns or driveways.

And Yard 520 is not the only potential source of contamination in the town. In the sixties and seventies coal ash was used as road base and structural fill throughout Pines. You can literally pick the light, shimmery black stuff off the ground in roadways, driveways and even yards. Murray says her children used to play with it before anyone realized the potential danger.

An alternative approach?

“You have to cook with bottled water, boil spaghetti, potatoes ... drink bottled water,” said Shirley McColpin. She and her husband own one of about fifty homes in Pines that still have well water in their pipes. “I just don’t think people should have to live like that.”

The responsible companies pay for water for people like McColpin, but she’s tired of waiting for the outcome of the official cleanup. She says she’s never had her well tested, and she’s afraid to wash in the water. McColpin says her husband dodged a bout with skin cancer just a couple years ago.

“Somebody polluted our water and somebody’s responsible for this,” McColpin said. “Fess up ... and give us our water.”

From the vantage of people like McColpin, the cleanup begun in 2004 has been slow and the definition of "cleanup" slippery. But the EPA and NIPSCO say they’ve done all they can to involve the community in what's called a “Superfund Alternative Agreement,” a less formal version of the official Superfund cleanup program. The “alternative” approach, they say, can save time and money by allowing polluters to enter into voluntary but legally-binding agreements.

Superfund Alternative sites are not listed on the EPA’s National Priorities List for hazardous contamination sites, although they meet the exact same criteria for the severity of the pollution. The strategy is logical: Superfund cleanups are notoriously complicated and time-consuming, and listing a site on the NPL can involve lengthy litigation. With the Superfund Alternative, the EPA drops legal battles, while industry avoids the bad P.R. smell that comes with having a Superfund site under your nose.

But observers of Pines and other cleanup sites question whether this  route is actually transparent and expedient. A recent EPA assessment says the alternative approach doesn’t necessarily make cleanups cheaper or faster. And Pines residents have repeatedly accused the EPA and the companies of making decisions about the cleanup behind closed doors.

“We feel that we’ve done more community involvement at the Pines site than some of our NPL sites,” said Rick Karl, who heads the EPA Region 5 Superfund Division. He says there’s no real difference in transparency or oversight from a regular Superfund cleanup aside from the formality of NPL listing.

Between 2002 and 2011, Region 5 established more alternative sites than the rest of the country combined. But Karl says he has not evaluated whether Superfund Alternative cleanups are faster or cheaper.

That’s not surprising, or so says Lisa Evans, an environmental activist and lawyer who worked for the EPA in the 1980s. “Are cleanups being done faster, does the community have more involvement in those sites, is it costing industry or the government less money?” Evans said. “None of that is true. What the advantage is, is that industry doesn’t have the stigma of having a Superfund site.”

Indeed, NIPSCO and their consultants are quick to point out that Pines is not a regular Superfund site and they are only “potentially responsible parties” under the alternative agreement. In other words, they’ve agreed to pay the price for cleanup, but they haven’t necessarily accepted blame for Pines’ groundwater contamination. The irony is that people like Shirley McColpin haven’t avoided the stigma of living in a contamination zone.

“We’ve just been held prisoner,” she said. “You can’t sell your home, real estate agents won’t come. They don’t say, ‘You have poison water we’re not coming.’ But that’s the reason they don’t come.”

The slow grind

A likely culprit behind the pace of Superfund cleanups is the principle of the “polluter pays.”

As in most Superfund sites, the companies responsible for coal ash in Pines bankrolled the environmental investigation. They hired their own consultants, but they also issued grants to a citizen’s group, People in Need of Environmental Safety (P.I.N.E.S.), to hire an independent technical advisor to review the studies of environmental and human health risks from coal ash in Pines.

The result? The experts (again, one representing the company, another representing the citizens’ group) spar over technical details, while the residents absorb mixed messages about the contamination’s severity and sources. According to P.I.N.E.S. technical advisor, Chuck Norris of GeoHydro, fundamental questions remain unanswered — despite the fact that the EPA is nine years into its investigation.

For example, Norris says the EPA and AECOM haven’t adequately measured how much coal ash was buried and spread around Pines, where it’s located, or how much of the contamination can be accurately attributed to coal ash used as road fill. And, he says, the arsenic showing up in monitoring wells near the landfill has never been located in soil or water samples taken in other places, despite the fact that it’s presumably spreading with the groundwater plume or filtering out into the soil.

Norris is also perplexed about the lack of a definitive groundwater model. In other words, NIPSCO’s consultants offered several predictions about where the contaminated plume of water is moving, none of which were accepted by the EPA. That debate took years, and still left the cleanup with no groundwater model at all, a move Norris calls “very unusual” for a groundwater contamination site.

The EPA approved the environmental reports sanctioned by NIPSCO at each stage even when those reports lacked what Norris considers key information. Norris finds this disconcerting.

“We’re going to leave the gorilla in the room, but we’re not going to make you acknowledge that the gorilla’s there,” he said. “Even though whether or not it’s there seems to be important.”

But Norris says it’s too soon to declare the cleanup a success or failure; the proof, he says, will be in the pudding. And, he says, it can be hard for affected residents to face the fact that a “cleanup” of groundwater contamination is never really over.

“It’s always a balance between what technically can be done, what it costs to do it and how much damage will be allowed to continue in lieu of trying to do more,” he said. “A perfect cleanup doesn’t exist. Once these contaminants are out, they’re out.”

And here’s the latest message Pines residents have had to absorb: The most recent studies of the site approved by the EPA find no significant risk to human health from coal ash contamination.

This seemingly reassuring news is the word of the consultant overseeing the science in Pines on behalf of the companies. That person also happens to be a leading advocate for the coal ash industry.

At the helm: An advocate for coal ash reuse

Lisa Bradley has managed the environmental investigation in Pines since 2004 as an employee of AECOM, an international consulting giant. AECOM already has a coal ash track record: In 2009 the Inspector General for the Tennessee Valley Authority, the utility responsible for the wet ash disaster in Kingston, accused AECOM of understating the company’s responsibility.

And last year, Lisa Bradley joined the executive committee of the powerful American Coal Ash Association, an association of utilities and marketers in the business of promoting what they call the “beneficial use” of coal ash.

The national industry in coal ash recycling is worth more than $2 billion a year. Companies say various types of dry ash from coal combustion can be safely used in roads, in concrete, or even in toothpaste. The EPA’s currently weighing two proposed regulations on the use of coal ash; industry broadly favors one that’s less restrictive. The agency’s sat silent on both since 2011.

Also, the EPA itself supports coal ash reuse, and in 2011 the inspector general slapped the agency’s wrist over the issue. The agency, the IG wrote, had collaborated with industry to support the practice of coal ash reuse, despite the lack of data about the potential risks.

Bradley attends industry events, where she promotes the idea that coal ash is similar in composition to soil. Environmentalist groups have smeared her work as “junk science.” But she doesn’t believe her advocacy makes her unqualified for the Pines jobs.

“I don’t see it as a conflict,” said Bradley. “I’m very well trained in what I do. I’ve been doing it for a long time. Certainly everything we’ve done for Pines has followed EPA guidance and regulations.”

All of this is incontrovertible. Bradley’s been a toxicologist at AECOM for 22 years. And in any EPA cleanup, the agency ultimately approves all the reports and decides the outcome based on its own regulatory powers.

Yet the EPA’s own research has documented two dozen proven cases of environmental or health problems caused by coal ash, and dozens more potential cases. Numerous scientific studies demonstrate that the elements present in coal ash can harm human health, animals and the environment. An investigative report by the Center for Public Integrity finds industry has had a hand in holding back state regulations and fighting against federal ones.

So how could a figure like Bradley end up in such a key position in Pines?

“They’re providing facts and information just as any other toxicologist would provide,” said Nick Meyer, a spokesman for NIPSCO. He says the company selected AECOM as consultants through a standard bidding process. The data the consultants provide, he says, is not subjective. “A 12-inch ruler is gonna measure something the same as it measures something down the road.”

But the comparison is not apt. Environmental reports are hundreds of pages long and include thousands of pieces of data gathered from wells and soil samples. EPA feedback on those reports is even more substantive; I’ve been told a Freedom of Information Act request for comments and communications about the Pines reports will take six months to fulfill.

When I asked Rick Karl of EPA Region 5 about concerns that this cleanup could be influenced by the coal ash industry, his response was simple.

“We use our own scientists to review and prepare comments on any document that is developed by a responsible party,” Karl said.

In other words, the buck stops with the EPA. Though, of course, not everyone sees it that way, particularly those who think the EPA’s dropped the ball on coal ash.

“The problem lies in relying on the polluter to do the investigation,” said Evans, adding that having the EPA make corrections after the fact is a waste of time at best. “Because the polluter has a vested interest in keeping those costs low. It’s a situation of the fox guarding the chicken coop.”

Evans argues potential gaps in oversight are built into “the polluter pays” model of almost all EPA cleanups. Keep in mind that there are more than 1,000 of these sites around the country, and Pines is neither the most contaminated, nor the most controversial.

But despite the confusion it can cause for residents and the potential for conflicts of interest, the “polluter pays” model is all the EPA has to work with. The EPA’s Superfund program hasn’t received new funding since 1995, and the Obama administration’s efforts to reinstate the Superfund tax have gone nowhere. In the meantime, the EPA is placing fewer new sites on the National Priorities List, and Superfund Alternative Approach sites are on the rise.

As it stands now (in Pines, and around the country), if the polluter doesn’t pay, no one does.

The clock will keep ticking

“The coal industry wants a free hand to dispose of this stuff how they see fit,” said George Adey, the Pines Town Council president. “Our community is a perfect example of why we need a stronger EPA and stronger regulation for coal ash.”

That kind of sentiment’s drawing more attention lately, especially after the Kingston disaster. That incident reminded environmentalists and lawmakers that towns such as Pines had been treated like coal ash dumps, though it hasn’t led to much action. The EPA has been sitting on two proposed regulations on the disposal of coal ash since 2010, and the states offer a hodge-podge of guidelines. As it stands, the states regulate the disposal of coal ash in more than a thousand ponds and landfills around the country, many of them unlined.

Coal remains a major source of energy in the Chicago region as well as the entire nation. And environmentalists say “clean coal” is a fallacy if you consider the continued production of unregulated coal ash.

New regulatory developments are likely to pass Pines by, since NIPSCO no longer dumps ash there. The clock, though, will still be running on the cleanup. The EPA says it expects to announce what cleanup requirements it will impose on NIPSCO and Brown in early 2015.

Meanwhile, the Yard 520 landfill still sits at the edge of the town. There’s a marshy ditch right next to Yard 520 that captures most of the contaminated runoff from the area and carries it through the town of Pines and through Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.

The final destination? Lake Michigan.

Lewis Wallace is a WBEZ Pritzker Journalism Fellow. Follow him @lewispants.