March 13, 2024

Pines residents, activists worry coal ash cleanup standard for soil based on flawed data

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Coal ash was used as construction fill in hundreds of properties in the Town of Pines. - Pixabay

Coal ash was used as construction fill in hundreds of properties in the Town of Pines.

Pixabay

Residents in the Town of Pines worry coal ash in the soil won’t be cleaned up to safe levels. Coal ash contains chemicals like arsenic — which can cause cancer and heart disease.

The EPA will hold a public meeting to update residents on the soil cleanup on Thursday.

Coal ash was used as construction fill in hundreds of properties in the Town of Pines. To clean them up, the party responsible for the pollution — the northern Indiana utility NIPSCO — had to find out how much of things like arsenic naturally occur in the area’s soil.

But Lisa Evans with the environmental group Earthjustice said that data is flawed. Some of its soil samples actually had coal ash in them — making the natural level of arsenic look much higher than it actually is.

“It may result in very few properties being cleaned up if that standard is set artificially high," she said.

Evans said the arsenic cleanup standard in Pines is about 30 percent higher than what is normally set for Superfund sites. She said that's what prompted her to look into the testing done for NIPSCO by the consulting firm AECOM in 2016.

Evans said the consultants should have known there was a mistake when they saw there was high arsenic in only two of the 22 samples they took.

"It also should have been seen by EPA, which who should have been performing oversight over this whole cleanup process," she said.

Evans said, fortunately, there is still time for the EPA to correct those errors now and require a more thorough cleanup.

In an email statement, NIPSCO said it conducted testing under protocols set by EPA and in a manner consistent with industry standards.

"NIPSCO adhered to these procedures in performance of the sampling. We have reviewed the test results with the U.S. EPA and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR)," it read.
 

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Paul Kysel is the former president of the residents’ group PINES (People In Need of Environmental Safety). He said the group used to have its own environmental consultant that would check NIPSCO’s work, but PINES ran out of funding. Now, he said, no one is there to make sure it’s accurate.

At a meeting on Thursday, the EPA hopes to get permission to test for coal ash chemicals on the property of more residents in the town, but Kysel seems skeptical that will work.

“The problem is the vast majority of the Town of Pines residents have so little trust in either the responsible parties and government — meaning EPA — that they're not likely to come forward," he said.

Kysel said residents worry finding out there is coal ash on their property will lower their property values or make their homes harder to sell. He said the EPA has also only required NIPSCO to remove three feet of soil.

Kysel said some residents still haven't been hooked up to municipal water.

The EPA will hold a public meeting on the soil cleanup in the Town of Pines Thursday night at 6 p.m. in the Michigan City Council Chambers.

NIPSCO said property owners can get their soil tested for free by contacting Bethany Dale at 833-746-3701 or pines@etc-online.com.

Rebecca is our energy and environment reporter. Contact her at rthiele@iu.edu or follow her on Twitter at @beckythiele.

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