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The future of Harbor Island

Alexander Sinn • Nov 16, 2018 at 1:00 PM

The Board of Light & Power’s coal-burning plant on Harbor Island is slated to close in less than two years, but the storied past of the island environment presents challenges for future development.

Grand Haven’s Harbor Island has been used as a city landfill and a coal dock for heating homes and businesses since the 1930s. The landfill was closed prior to construction of the Sims power plant in the early 1960s. 

The current plan is to demolish the power plant, conduct environmental remediation measures on Harbor Island and construct a 36-megawatt reciprocating engine plant for future generation of electricity.

A gas-siting study conducted by Black & Veatch in 2014 determined Harbor Island is the best site within the Grand Haven’s city limits for a future power plant.

Prior to building a new facility, environmental mitigation will be required to clean up contamination on the island, according to BLP Supply Manager Erik Booth.

“Given the environmental status of the site, remediation for non-industrial purposes will not be economically feasible,” he said.

Using existing infrastructure can greatly reduce the cost of a new power plant, Booth said, such as existing pilings under the current steam plant.

The BLP is looking to move toward purchasing a majority of power through wholesale market purchases with some local production, including an investment in renewable energy. Contracts have already been pursued for wind and solar projects.

While local renewables would require major investments and finding enough real estate, Booth said the Harbor Island site is well suited for a community solar garden to complement the new energy plant.

“Our main focus in this energy transition is to improve the electrical reliability for the communities we serve and stabilize the electrical rates for customers,” he said.

Ash ponds not meeting standards

The site currently has five ash ponds that store the byproduct from the coal plant, and the ponds are not meeting federal regulations developed by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2015 for handling coal ash.

Testing at the Sims plant by an independent laboratory in 2016 found traces of arsenic, cadmium, cobalt, selenium, zinc and mercury. Analysis completed last month indicated concentrations of cobalt, fluoride and lithium in the groundwater at levels above the groundwater protection standard.

Wei Zhang of Michigan State University’s Environmental Science and Policy Program said arsenic, cadmium, selenium and mercury are common toxic elements that can pose a risk to humans and wildlife if the concentration levels are high. Zinc is less of a concern for human health, he said, but in high concentrations may be phytotoxic to plants. 

Ponds 1, 2 and 3 — which served the retired Sims Unit 1 and 2 boilers — are unlined and no longer in use. The units were retired in the early 1980s after the construction of the Unit 3 boiler.

The remaining two active ash ponds that serve Unit 3, with 7-foot-deep clay lining, do not meet federal standards, which require a synthetic lining over the clay. An inspection Aug. 8 found the condition of the Unit 3 ponds acceptable, with no observed structural weaknesses or safety issues, aside from minor erosion and cracking. A rodent burrow and woody vegetation were also noted as minor issues.

The Obama-era Coal Combustion Residuals (CCR) rule required power plants to ensure lined and unlined ponds used to store coal ash reach federal standards by November 2018. In July, the Trump administration rolled back the CCR rule, moving the target date for federal compliance to November 2020.

While designs were developed to retrofit the ponds, the decision to close the Sims plant led to a change of plans, according to BLP Communications Director Renee Molyneux.

“With the recent decision to close the Sims plant, those costs will be shifted to clean-closing the ponds and site environmental remediation,” she said. “All ponds will be closed under the current environmental rules and regulations when the power plant retires in 2020.”

The Unit 3 ponds meet the definition of a “significant hazard” under the CCR rule, by which failure or misoperation of the plant could result in economic loss, environmental damage and disruption of lifeline facilities.

“Back in the day, they buried everything on the island,” Booth said of the historical city landfill and utility practices. “Given these challenges, the site is best suited for continued power generation facilities.”

Utilities moving on from coal 

The Sims plant’s closure is part of a larger trend of Michigan utilities moving away from coal.

Consumers Energy plans to stop providing coal energy by 2040 and begin closing its five remaining coal-fired units in 2023. The utility company closed four plants in 2016, while the Holland municipal plant was closed in 2017 and Lansing’s Eckert plant was closed earlier this year.

The Michigan Environmental Council (MEC) in October released a report highlighting the threats coal plants pose to Michigan’s water resources. Several coal plant sites are identified with groundwater contamination and conditions below federal standards.

The EPA in 2011 determined coal-fired plants are the largest manmade emitter of mercury pollution, accounting for 50 percent of mercury emissions. In 2016, 48,697 pounds of toxic pollutants were discharged into Michigan lakes and rivers by coal plants, according to the MEC.

In 2018, Michigan utilities reported groundwater monitoring results for 22 of 29 coal ash units in Michigan, 17 of which showed levels of toxic chemicals. An ash pond owned by Consumers Energy in Karn showed arsenic levels 52 times above the federal drinking water standard.

The majority of coal ash waste sites in the state — 29 of 37 — did not have synthetic liners as of 2017, according to the MEC report.

Charlotte Jameson, the MEC’s energy policy and legislative affairs director, said federal regulations have helped decrease the impact of coal ash on water supplies, but the toxicity of ash produced by coal plants has increased in recent years.

“It’s clear that coal plants are a significant threat to water and communities across Michigan,” she said. “We should put in place common-sense policies that stem the flow of these toxins into our waters.”

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