New report demonstrates how coal-fired power plants threaten water quality

Burning coal a significant source of toxic water contamination in Michigan communities

LANSING – A white paper released today by the Michigan Environmental Council details the ways in which coal-fired power plants have contaminated Michigan’s Great Lakes, rivers, streams, groundwater and drinking water with toxins like mercury, arsenic and lead. The report comes at a time when communities across Michigan are struggling with drinking water contaminated with Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) and other toxic chemicals.

“Drinking water quality is a top-of-mind issue for Michigan families, and our report demonstrates that coal-fired power plants are a significant source of contamination of surface and groundwater across the state,” said Charlotte Jameson, energy policy and legislative affairs director for the Michigan Environmental Council. “Michigan’s overreliance on burning coal for electricity has taken a significant toll on water quality. To fully protect our water and public health, we need to stem the flow of toxic chemicals from coal plants into our water and speed up closure of coal plants.”

According to the white paper, coal plants discharged 48,697 pounds of toxic pollutants, like mercury, lead and arsenic, into Michigan lakes and rivers in 2016 alone. Coal plants also generate a significant amount of toxic waste called coal ash, a byproduct from burning coal that contains mercury, lead, arsenic and other toxic heavy metals. Michigan’s 13 largest coal plants generated more than 1.4 million tons of coal ash waste in 2016. DTE Energy’s coal plant in Monroe accounted for more than half of coal ash generated in the state.

“Toxic coal ash remains to be a significant threat to our drinking water and a key example of how energy production is directly connected to water quality,” said James Clift, director for the Michigan Environmental Council. “As lawmakers, advocates and state officials continue to work on addressing issues impacting our water, reducing pollution from dirty sources of energy, like coal-fired power plants, must be a part of their strategy.”

In Michigan, there are 29 coal ash waste sites, including 35 unlined coal ash ponds. A review of the 22 coal ash sites with publicly available groundwater monitoring data showed that 17 contained groundwater with toxic chemicals, like arsenic and lead, above drinking water standards.  

“The negative health consequences of burning coal are well documented and are particularly impactful to those living in low-income areas, which are usually in close proximity to coal plants,” said Mara Herman, health outreach coordinator for the Ecology Center. “This report should send a message to lawmakers and decision makers that the impacts on human health from burning coal extend beyond poor air quality and we must work to address the negative effects on our water.”  

Download the report, "Impacts of Burning Coal on Michigan's Water Quality"

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