Fresh, December 12, 2023: In Indiana, Saving a Coal Plant Comes at the Expense of Groundwater

December 12, 2023

Fresh is a biweekly newsletter from Circle of Blue that unpacks the biggest international, state, and local policy news stories facing the Great Lakes region today. Sign up for Fresh: A Great Lakes Policy Briefing, straight to your inbox, every other Tuesday.

— Christian Thorsberg, Interim Fresh Editor

This Week’s Watersheds

  • A new EPA proposal aims to replace the country’s lead pipes within a decade — but the process in Chicago could take four times as long.
  • Hundreds of non-native carp were caught in the Mississippi River at the Minnesota-Wisconsin border, the largest capture in history.
  • In western Indiana, a coal plant that was supposed to shut down in May may now run indefinitely, placing local waterways and reservoirs at risk.
  • Michigan’s Public Service Commission approved a $500 million tunnel to encase parts of the Enbridge Line 5 pipeline in the Straits of Mackinac.

With a grant from the state of Michigan, new research will measure river health and road salt contamination in the Rouge River watershed.

“It’s a very challenging thing for our supervision staff who have to make those calls. The danger is, you say, ‘OK, I want to conserve salt. I’m not gonna salt. This snowfall isn’t going to accumulate too much.’ And if you’re wrong on that, and the roads ice up, and people die, that’s horrific.” — Craig Bryson, senior communications manager of Oakland County’s Road Commission.

Friends of the Rouge, a nonprofit environmental organization based in Plymouth, Michigan, has been monitoring road salt pollution and measuring its dispersal around the Rouge River for the past three years, the Southfield Sun reports. The chemical, often used by municipalities in unchecked quantities, is known to wash into waters and increase chloride concentrations, impacting drinking water, soil, and habitat health. Recent movements to limit the use of salt, or implement alternative de-icing strategies, are slowly gaining momentum. 

Environmentalists in Michigan hope that officials in the Rouge River watershed will be the next to take that important step. A $40,000 grant from the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy will be used to test four different salt pollution data collection methods at locations throughout the watershed. The results will inform road commissions on the most environmentally friendly techniques and locations to apply road salt, and how much to put down, without sacrificing driver safety.

In Context: Road Salt, A Stealthy Pollutant, Is Damaging Michigan Waters

Fresh from the Great Lakes News Collaborative

  • Invasive carp barrier could be delayed because Illinois has yet to sign agreement with U.S. Corps of Engineers — Michigan Radio
  • Great Lakes Moment: Creating a green oasis in southwest Detroit — Great Lakes Now
  • Palisades owners plan two more Michigan nuclear reactors — Bridge Michigan

The Great Lakes News Collaborative includes Bridge Michigan; Circle of Blue; Great Lakes Now at Detroit Public Television; and Michigan Radio, Michigan’s NPR News Leader. We work together to produce news and information about the impact of climate change, pollution, and aging infrastructure on the Great Lakes and drinking water. This independent journalism is supported by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation. Find all the work here.

The Merom Coal Plant, Purchased by a Crypto Mine, Won’t Shutter Anytime Soon

The Merom coal plant in Sullivan, Indiana, was supposed to close its doors this past May, ending a decades-old operation that frequently broke environmental rules and spilled ammonia, iron, and coal ash into groundwater reservoirs, waterways, and drinking water pipes and infrastructure, Indiana Public Radio reports. Per IndyStar, “the plant’s own testing also found that groundwater on the property exceeded healthy limits for lead, barium, chromium, cadmium, lead, sulfate and fluoride.”

But the facility was given a new lease on life when AboutBit, a cryptocurrency blockchain firm, announced that it would build a new cryptomine data center adjacent to the coal mine, using the energy it produced to help power the new facility. 

A slew of opponents — including the Sierra Club, Earthjustice, and the Hoosier Environmental Council — have been quick to react to the plan, which they say would perpetuate pollution in the community. 

In the News

Pipeline Protection: Michigan’s Public Service Commission voted last week to approve a $500 million tunnel which will encase portions of the Enbridge Line 5 oil pipeline that runs beneath the Straits of Mackinac, where Lakes Michigan and Huron meet, AP reports. The tunnel will protect the lakes from potential oil spills and leaks in the nearly 70 year-old line. In 2020, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ordered Enbridge to shut down the pipeline, but was ignored. This summer, a federal judge gave the company three years to close the “part of Line 5 that runs across the reservation of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.” Enbridge’s opponents are viewing the planned tunnel as a frustrating step backward that prolongs the energy company’s life in the Great Lakes region. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will be the last body to give approval once their environmental impact statement is complete, likely around 2026. 

Carp Boom: More than 300 non-native carp were captured near Trempealeau, Wisconsin, on November 30, marking the largest known occurrence of the problematic fish, and the closest yet to Minnesota’s waters, Minnesota Public Radio reports. The record haul has prompted new calls for the state’s Department of Natural Resources to act proactively in staging barriers to entry. Non-native carp are known to outcompete native fish species, “leading to a decline in biodiversity and water quality in rivers where they’re established.” In the most recent state legislative session, the DNR allocated $1.72 million to the problem, just a tenth of the $17 million request from the Stop Carp Coalition.

Looking Ahead

Chicago’s Lead Pipes: In the wake of the Environmental Protection Agency’s recent proposal to remove lead pipes from America’s cities within 10 years, leaders in Chicago have been quick to curb expectations. Block Club Chicago reports that the city’s 400,000 remaining lead pipes are “by far the most” of any U.S. city. Their replacement, according to Andrea Cheng, the city’s water commissioner, will take up to 40 years and $12 billion. In November, the EPA granted the city a $336 million loan for lead pipe replacement — enough to cover about 30,000 pipes. 

Upcoming Events

December 13 — Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement Nutrients Annex Webinar: 2023 Lake Erie Update — learn more

January 11 — Great Lakes Seminar Series: Bill Currie — learn more

January 18 — 2024 OIPC Conference — learn more

January 18 — Breaking Down the Role of Business in Achieving a Sustainable Future in the Great Lakes and Beyond — learn more

Other News

Wastewater Tracking: Residents in London, Ontario will soon be able to track real-time wastewater flow into the Thames River during storm events, thanks to a public website that is planned to go live next year, CBC News reports

Great Lakes Water Usage: Water use in the Great Lakes basin — which supports 20 percent of the world’s accessible drinking water — declined 3 percent in 2022 compared to the year before, Michigan Radio reports

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