GRAND RAPIDS — Consumers Energy’s J.H. Campbell Generating Complex in West Olive is scheduled to close in 2040; however, members of a nationwide environmental group would like to see the plant closed sooner than that.

On Tuesday, West Olive residents, local Sierra Club members and more met in Grand Rapids – in front of a sign reading “Coal and drinking water don’t mix: It’s time to clean up coal ash in West Michigan” – to discuss the environmental club’s results of groundwater testing near the Campbell plant.

Consumers Energy officials couldn’t agree more that the time has come when Michiganders no longer need coal and can rely on renewable resources, but note it will take time to get there. In the meantime, officials say groundwater monitoring will continue.

“Coal plants produce a toxic byproduct called coal ash that contains mercury, lead, arsenic and other harmful heavy metals,” said Charlotte Jameson, Michigan Environmental Council energy policy and legislative affairs director. “Each year these coal plants remain open, they continue to produce toxic coal ash that is accumulating at sites across the state.

“We did a report last year that looked at coal ash across the state,” she added. “Seventy-seven percent of coal ash pits were contaminating groundwater above drinking standards.”

Jameson said the maximum contaminant levels set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) were exceeded at Campbell’s coal ash pits, according to 2017 and 2018 data.

Roger Morgenstern, Consumers Energy’s senior public information director, said there are 100 wells on and around the Campbell site, including some in and bordering the plant’s four ponds, which have been closed.

Wells monitored in and around the ponds may show higher results, but Morgenstern said customers don’t drink from these ponds. Data collected from groundwater away from these ponds show levels within the EPA’s standards.

“Our data shows that there are not elevated levels of metals,” he said. “We are not seeing that migrating from our plant. We feel, based on our data, contamination is not an issue.”

Morgenstern said the four ponds previously used on the site have been closed and all coal ash has been moved to Campbell’s landfill, which is lined with rubber.

Jameson said that although the ponds are no longer in use, the legacy of coal ash still remains in those areas.

“Utilities dump wet coal ash into unlined pits next to their plants, which results in toxins from the sludge seeping into the groundwater,” she said.

Across Pigeon Lake from the Campbell plant, West Olive resident Paul Keck said four homes were chosen for testing. The homes were selected for being various distances from the Campbell complex and different well depths were tested.

In Keck’s results, neighbors tested positive for elevated levels of arsenic, radium and more.

“Nothing is more important than protecting our neighbors, employees, customers and the planet we all cherish,” Morgenstern said in a statement. “We’re committed to safely handling, storing and disposing of coal combustion residuals (CCRs), commonly known as coal ash, and have removed all ash storage ponds from the J.H. Campbell site. Our data indicates no exceedances of arsenic, lead or radium above drinking water standards migrating beyond Consumers Energy’s property boundary. We will continue to review this information and work proactively with the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, and our community.

“All future coal ash generated will either be beneficially reused, as permitted by law, or placed in the state-licensed landfill facility at the Campbell site,” he added. 

“This double-lined landfill will support the site’s expected operation through 2040 and Consumers Energy is required to monitor the site for 30 years after closure. We invite the Sierra Club to share its findings with Consumers Energy so that we may continue this important dialogue.”

Officials from the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE, formerly the MDEQ) noted that while they cannot comment on the Sierra Club’s findings – as EGLE has not seen them yet – an extensive monitoring network, sampling and a remedial action plan are in place at Campbell’s disposal area.

Scott Dean, EGLE strategic communications advisor, also noted the locations of the Sierra Club’s test sites could show higher results as arsenic naturally occurs in areas of the state associated with past agricultural activity.

“We share the Sierra Club’s passion for water in Michigan,” Consumers Energy CEO Patti Poppe said Wednesday during a stop along her statewide tour calling customers to join the company’s clean energy movement.

With the new clean energy movement, Poppe said that by 2030, the use of burning coal for energy could drop to 10 percent, while the use of renewable energy could increase to 42 percent.

She said Consumers Energy plans to have carbon emissions decreased more than 90 percent by 2040.

“This is a call to protect the planet for generations to come – to eliminate energy waste in our systems today,” Poppe said. 

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