Nearly 50 years ago, toxic coal ash from a power plant was used as fill in yards, at building sites and under the roads of a northern Indiana town.
Thirty years later, federal and state agencies first learned that it was contaminating the town’s aquifer and creating a health risk for many of the roughly 600 residents.
It wasn’t until just last week, however, that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the utility in question — Northern Indiana Public Service Co., or NIPSCO — reached an agreement on how to fully clean up the contamination in the Town of Pines
NIPSCO will remove the soil contaminated by its coal ash at homes within the Superfund site around the Porter County town, according to a consent decree filed Friday in federal court. It’s agreed to pay nearly $12 million to do so.
“Protecting human health and the environment is vital,” said Nick Meyer, spokesman for NIPSCO’s parent company NiSource. “That remains the focus of the work NIPSCO has done in the Town of Pines and will continue to do under the Consent Decree.”
The town and Superfund site is located about four miles west of Michigan City and about one mile south of Lake Michigan. Under the decree, the utility plans to test the soil at about 400 homes and businesses in the town where coal ash was used as “fill” during construction.
Coal ash, which is the result of burning coal to make electricity, contains a dangerous mix of heavy metals and toxic chemicals such as arsenic, boron lead and mercury. Those toxins can leach into water — and have, according to sampling around the state.
Indiana has the most pits holding the cancer-causing byproduct of any state in the country. Testing shows that nearly all of Indiana’s coal ash sites have contaminated nearby groundwater enough to render it unfit for use as drinking water.
The situation in the Town of Pines is no different.
Some residents and environmental advocates have expressed concerns and frustrations that the clean-up process has moved slowly — the EPA has known about the pollution in the town of more than 700 people for nearly two decades.
“Why is NIPSCO still cleaning up the toxic mess after 20 years?” asked Lisa Evans, a senior attorney for the environmental group Earthjustice. She specializes in coal ash. “It is important to realize that this site is not an isolated waste dump. This Superfund site is a town where people live.”
Meyer, of NIPSCO, said the consent decree reflects a continued effort to address the coal ash contamination that has been underway for years, and the utility is committed to completing that work.
Decades of dumping coal ash
Town of Pines’ issues with coal ash began decades ago. For many years, NIPSCO dumped coal ash — more than a million tons in all — in a landfill that sat on top of the town’s aquifer. Coal ash was also offered to the town and its residents to be used as “clean fill” in landscaping homes and building roads.
Exposure to high levels of heavy metals, like the ones in coal ash, can cause a variety of health problems. It can lead to nervous system damage as well as increased risk for certain cancers. But those dangers weren’t publicly known at the time, and contaminated ash was spread across the town.
Coal ash: Other states are making utilities dig up toxic coal ash. Indiana is letting it sit there.
Before long, the toxins from coal ash leached into the groundwater. Residents began complaining in 1999 about the taste and smell of the drinking water from their residential wells.
Then in 2001, Indiana’s environmental agency tested several private drinking wells throughout the Town of Pines. The results were concerning. The EPA did additional testing the following year: It found water wells at 30 of 100 homes tested were polluted.
The source was determined to be the nearby coal ash landfill.
That’s when the town became a Superfund site and federal oversight began. EPA worked with NIPSCO to install water lines and hook up many homes to the Michigan City municipal water.
About 270 residents and businesses were connected in the early 2000s, Meyer said. Bottled water was also provided to other property owners in and near the town that stayed on well water. Additional testing deemed the water at those homes to be safe.
While the work to address groundwater impacts was seemingly swift, nearly a decade passed before attention turned to problems with the soil used as fill at home and business sites.
In 2014, NIPSCO sampled the soils at several properties around the Town of Pines at EPA’s request. Seven homes showed elevated levels of arsenic, a key marker of coal ash contamination.
“The landfill first contaminated the town’s water, and now it’s an issue at everyone’s homes,” said Diana Lawrence, a Town of Pines resident and member of the local Zoning Board. “We didn’t know how dangerous coal ash was when all this first started, but now we do know.”
The results prompted outreach to the entire town, Meyer said, and a clean-up plan was put in place. In recent years, three feet of contaminated soil has been removed from 19 properties throughout the town, including a community park.
Though residents and environmentalists are glad to see that work underway, they say it’s not nearly enough.
“Will the town finally have an adequate and effective plan to sample and remove all the toxic coal ash used as fill?” Evans asked.
Sample every single property
That’s where the consent decree comes should help.
Many homes and properties were not included in the initial round of soil samples, meaning other residents could be living with toxic coal ash in their yards and don’t know it.
Meyer said “considerable cleanup progress has been made” in recent years. Still, NIPSCO will now work to sample an additional 400 properties in the town where testing was either not previously required or had not been requested by the owners.
“The work under the Consent Decree sets forth a comprehensive process to conduct outreach to sample every property in the Town of Pines” for the presence of coal ash, Meyer said.
In any areas where contamination is detected at levels above EPA’s standards, NIPSCO will be required to excavate the soil. It will have to transport the contaminated material to a licensed waste disposal facility.
On top of that, the utility must restore those properties with clean soil and monitor surface water, groundwater and drinking water wells to ensure contamination hasn’t migrated any further. All that work is expected to cost nearly $11.8 million.
Meyer said a “very thorough and methodical set of steps” will be followed for each affected property. That includes validating samples and reaching consensus with property owners on individual clean-up plans.
Coal ash: Indiana has the most toxic coal ash pits. The EPA says it’s time to clean them up.
Lawrence is among homeowners who will soon begin negotiations about the clean-up of her property.
Her family still uses a private well, with reverse osmosis filtration, as her water was deemed to be safe. But the soils around her home tested at nearly 660 parts per million for arsenic — more than 20 times the EPA’s standard to trigger clean-up within the town.
“These stats are very concerning,” said Lawrence, who has lived in the town for years. “When I see those arsenic levels, how can that be safe for anyone?”
Lawrence said she wouldn’t have bought the property where she and her husband live if she’d known of the issues at the time. Her husband has recently been diagnosed with a rare nasal and sinus cancer. While she can’t say the coal ash caused his cancer, she does know that heavy metals such as arsenic and chromium can contribute to such types of cancer.
A health study in the town has never been completed to determine how the water or the soil might have affected residents’ health. Lawrence would like to see that done, too.
“I know we all need the utility’s help, but I just want them to do right by my family and our town,” she said. “I want them to be responsible to the town and the homes where they now know there’s contamination.”
Meyer said the consent decree is the next step to ensure that happens.
While the utility is working on contacting all residents, NIPSCO also encourages property owners to reach out to get their yards tested for the toxic ash.
The EPA and State of Indiana will oversee the cleanup, and NISPCO will be required to pay for any costs incurred. The utility also will reimburse EPA for a large percentage of its past costs and pay all future expenses incurred by the federal and state agencies in overseeing the clean-up.
There is a 30-day comment period in which the public can weigh in on the consent decree, which was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana. The decree will then be effective once it is signed by the Court.
Call IndyStar reporter Sarah Bowman at 317-444-6129 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook: @IndyStarSarah. Connect with IndyStar’s environmental reporters: Join The Scrub on Facebook.
IndyStar’s environmental reporting project is made possible through the generous support of the nonprofit Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust.