Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Ash landfills at Consumers Energy plant are leaking toxics into Saginaw Bay

Bay City Times

Two massive ash landfills that hold the concentrated residue of coal burned at a power plant in Bay County have been leaking toxics to the Saginaw Bay for years.

The Lone Tree Council, a Bay City area environmental group, uncovered the issue while combing through state records on plans for a new 800-megawatt power plant at the Consumers Energy Karn-Weadock facility in Hampton Township.

The group, along with the newly formed Citizens Exploring Clean Energy, is calling for the state Department of Environmental Quality to hold a public meeting to discuss the leakage and related issues with residents.

State regulators acknowledge the landfills have been discharging toxics like arsenic, boron and lithium in excess of state standards meant to protect aquatic organisms, drinking water and public health.

Terry L. Walkington, supervisor of the DEQ Waste and Hazardous Materials Division in Bay City, said the discharges are likely inhibiting the growth and survival of tiny aquatic organisms in "a small area" outside the landfills.

Fish eat those critters as food, and a regulated "hot pond" discharge channel for the Weadock landfill is a popular fishing spot.

But the heavy metals leaking from the landfills aren't bioaccumulative, and don't pose a risk to public health or the water supply, Walkington said.

Consumers Energy officials say they've been working to address the leaking with numerous studies since high concentrations of arsenic were first identified in landfill monitoring wells in 1982.

"It appears that this is an attempt by the Lone Tree Council to deliberately try and scare the public," said Karn-Weadock spokesman Kelly Farr.

Consumers Energy and the DEQ are negotiating a consent agreement to shore up the landfills and set requirements for continued monitoring of the ash piles.

Officials with the utility say they're spending $3 million to install a slurry wall, keyed into underlying clay, to stop a 292-acre Weadock ash landfill from leaking. The company has similar plans to fix a 172-acre Karn ash landfill in coming years.

"We believe we have a good story to tell in that we've taken some proactive measures to address this situation," said Farr.

The company also is spending another $49 million to install a new dry system to dispose of its ash using air and pipes. The residue is now moved through pipes using water.

But members of the Lone Tree Council and Citizens Exploring Clean Energy are concerned that the process for settling the landfill leaching has gone on behind closed doors and point to documents that show the landfills weren't built properly in the first place.

"We are supposed to be excited about an expanded coal-fired complex and we discover that the company has been historically negligent about its wastes," Lone Tree Chairman Terry Miller said in a news release to be issued today.

"Here is one of the two largest utilities in the state showing an incredible level of irresponsibility. How many decades have seen arsenic leaching into the bay, the source of our drinking water?"

DEQ documents show that the two ash landfills were constructed from the 1940s through the 1970s on bay bottomlands and wetland areas.

At the time of construction, the landfills were supposed to be isolated from the bay by clay walls keyed into underlying clay. But the utility didn't create a sealed barrier.

"We weren't able to build it as tight as we wanted to in the first place, so there were some gaps," said Gary Dawson, Consumers' director of environmental services, land and water management in Jackson. more

Managing valuable fisheries


Ohio’s fish managers are paying close attention to two valuable fisheries with high hopes of preserving and improving the angling fun.

Recent news releases from Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Wildlife report the state is studying Pymatuning Lake’s walleye and Lake Erie’s steelhead populations.

Steelhead anglers along Erie’s shoreline and tributaries are being surveyed by the wildlife division and The Ohio State University. Their feedback will be used to gauge the popularity of Erie’s trout fishing, angler success, the size of the fish, and the availability of access areas.

At Pymatuning, Ohio’s Division of Wildlife and the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission recently electrofished to learn about the reservoir’s walleyes. They discovered that the result of the spring 2008 stocking of 586,000 one-inch walleye fingerlings and 4 million quarter-inch fish is the most 6- to 9-inch walleye since 2000.

For many years, Pymatuning has been known as one of the best walleye lakes in the region, thanks to annual fry-stocking programs. But, as many anglers will verify, the walleye fishing declined starting in 2001.

The Division of Wildlife reports that recent years of poor fry survival apparently KO’d the walleye fishery and led to a conclusion that changes in Pymatuning’s biology may have created conditions that do not favor fry.

That determination led, in turn, to a decision to try stockings of fingerlings.

“The September 2008 walleye electrofishing survey results provide room for initial optimism about improvements that may be in the offing for the prized walleye fishery,” the division said in its news release.

Up on Lake Erie, meanwhile, OSU and the Division of Wildlife are seeking angler feedback on Ohio’s world-class steelhead fishery.

“This comprehensive creek survey is the first of its kind in almost 25 years,” said Kevin Kayle, fish biology supervisor for the division’s Fairport Fish Research Station. “The survey provides an excellent opportunity for us to gauge the popularity of the fishery, measure angler success, sizes of fish harvested, and use of access areas.”

Ohio stocks 400,000 yearling steelies annually in five of Ohio’s Erie tributaries: Vermilion, Rocky, Grand and Chagrin rivers, and Conneaut Creek.

Creel clerks began surveying anglers at the start of October and will continue through early May. They are encouraging anglers to join in a follow-up mail survey in cooperation with OSU.

The mail survey will provide additional insights about anglers’ opinions, habits and fishing preferences, as well as how the steelhead fishery contributes to local economies. more

Algae blooms: A new source of energy?


They may dwell at the bottom of the food chain, but algae are drawing the attention of top scientists at companies such as Boeing, Chevron and ConocoPhillips.

The photosynthetic organisms have lived on Earth for a billion years, and some researchers say algae could be a key to helping solve some pressing issues facing the modern world. Big oil and other industrial powerhouses are investing in it as a potential post-ethanol biofuel and even as a means to slow global warming.

But scientists caution that while the possibilities are interesting, the unintended consequences of cultivating algae on a large scale must also be considered.

Growth prospects

Mark Huntley is the chief technology and science officer for Cellana, a division of Royal Dutch Shell. The physiologist has lived in Kona, Hawaii, for many years, but he has a PhD from Dalhousie University in Halifax and Dalhousie's oceanography department is part of Cellana's algal research program.

There are already several facilities on Hawaii's Big Island that process algae for the nutrition and pharmaceutical markets where algae are common additives. But Huntley says Cellana is the first there to evaluate marine algae's potential as a biofuel.

"Fewer than 20 per cent of the algae in the ocean have been isolated from nature," he says. "One of the most fruitful things to do is look for new — and many are promising. Cellana thinks we'll find more productive strains [of algae] in terms of oil content."

Algae is an intriguing biofuel prospect because it is the fastest growing plant-like material on the planet.

"Algae grows 10 times faster than sugar cane — it is the fastest growing crop," Huntley says. "So try to imagine mowing the lawn three times a day and you have your growth rate."

Researchers at the Center for Biorefining of the University of Minnesota estimate that algae produce 5,000 gallons of oil per acre (about 56,825 litres per hectare). By comparison, corn yields 18 gallons, soybeans produce 48 gallons and palm trees yield 635 gallons per acre.

One of algae's other great virtues is that unlike corn-based ethanol, many strains can be grown in salt water on marginal land.

How they grow

Algae, from the Latin word for seaweed, are referred to as "plant-like" organisms because they use photosynthesis to make food. But scientists will scoff if you call it a plant. Algae generally lack the roots, stems and leaves that you would find on plants grown on terra firma. more

Great Lakes governors want answers on carp barrier

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

The Great Lakes governors want answers from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Coast Guard as to why they have not switched on the new $9 million electric fish barrier designed to keep the dreaded Asian carp from invading the lakes.

The barrier was finished more than two years ago, but federal officials in charge of the project won't activate it because of worries about the danger the electrified water could pose to barge operators traveling along the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal.

The only thing now standing between the Great Lakes and the leaping, filter-feeding fish that can grow to 100 pounds is a smaller electric barrier. That barrier was intended to be only a temporary solution to a fish invasion that biologists say could destroy what's left of the lakes' ecological integrity and multibillion-dollar fishing and tourist industries.

The smaller barrier was recently refurbished, but studies show it is not strong enough to stop juvenile fish from swimming into the Great Lakes, because smaller fish are less affected by the barrier's electrical current.

The new barrier is designed to shoot significantly more electricity into the canal, which is an artificial link between Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River basin.

The Journal Sentinel reported last month that nearly $1 million of the $9 million spent so far on the new barrier has gone into testing and projects to make the device safer for barge operators, yet neither the Army Corps nor the Coast Guard can say when, or if, they will know enough to allow the barrier to operate.

Members of the panel that helped conceive and design the new barrier say they feel left out of some of the safety discussion the Corps and Coast Guard have been having with the barge industry. Barge industry leaders have said they would like to see the contraption removed and replaced with something they consider safer, such as a barrier that shoots bubbles or noise into the water.

Impatience with pace

The governors acknowledge there have been safety concerns with the barrier, but they have grown tired of waiting for the green light. The fish are within about 45 miles of Lake Michigan, a distance biologists say they could easily cover in just a couple of days if they decide to continue their swim north.

The carp were imported from Asia to Arkansas more than three decades ago and escaped their government containment ponds soon thereafter. They have been migrating toward the Great Lakes since, and have already overwhelmed stretches of the Mississippi and Illinois rivers.

"While we recognize there are safety concerns related to the barrier, these concerns must be more quickly assessed and resolved," Gov. Jim Doyle wrote Friday on behalf of the Council of Great Lakes Governors to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff. "We therefore ask you to provide us with a detailed work plan and timeline to complete barrier construction and testing, and then begin operation at full capacity as soon as possible."

The worry is the electrified water could send sparks between barges, some of which carry flammable materials. There are also concerns about what would happen if a person fell overboard in the barrier zone, which covers about a half-mile of canal in far southwest suburban Chicago. more

A Splash of Green for the Rust Belt


LIKE his uncle, his grandfather and many of their neighbors, Arie Versendaal spent decades working at the Maytag factory here, turning coils of steel into washing machines.

When the plant closed last year, taking 1,800 jobs out of this town of 16,000 people, it seemed a familiar story of American industrial decline: another company town brought to its knees by the vagaries of global trade.

Except that Mr. Versendaal has a new factory job, at a plant here that makes blades for turbines that turn wind into electricity. Across the road, in the old Maytag factory, another company is building concrete towers to support the massive turbines. Together, the two plants are expected to employ nearly 700 people by early next year.

“Life’s not over,” Mr. Versendaal says. “For 35 years, I pounded my body to the ground. Now, I feel like I’m doing something beneficial for mankind and the United States. We’ve got to get used to depending on ourselves instead of something else, and wind is free. The wind is blowing out there for anybody to use.”

From the faded steel enclaves of Pennsylvania to the reeling auto towns of Michigan and Ohio, state and local governments are aggressively courting manufacturing companies that supply wind energy farms, solar electricity plants and factories that turn crops into diesel fuel.

This courtship has less to do with the loftiest aims of renewable energy proponents — curbing greenhouse gas emissions and lessening American dependence on foreign oil — and more to do with paychecks. In the face of rising unemployment, renewable energy has become a crucial source of good jobs, particularly for laid-off Rust Belt workers.

Amid a presidential election campaign now dominated by economic concerns, wind turbines and solar panels seem as ubiquitous in campaign advertisements as the American flag.

No one believes that renewable energy can fully replace what has been lost on the American factory floor, where people with no college education have traditionally been able to finance middle-class lives. Many at Maytag earned $20 an hour in addition to health benefits. Mr. Versendaal now earns about $13 an hour.

Still, it’s a beginning in a sector of the economy that has been marked by wrenching endings, potentially a second chance for factory workers accustomed to layoffs and diminished aspirations.

In West Branch, Iowa, a town of 2,000 people east of Iowa City, workers now assemble wind turbines in a former pump factory. In northwestern Ohio, glass factories suffering because of the downturn in the auto industry are retooling to make solar energy panels.

“The green we’re interested in is cash,” says Norman W. Johnston, who started a solar cell factory called Solar Fields in Toledo in 2003.

The market is potentially enormous. In a report last year, the Energy Department concluded that the United States could make wind energy the source of one-fifth of its electricity by 2030, up from about 2 percent today. That would require nearly $500 billion in new construction and add more than three million jobs, the report said. Much of the growth would be around the Great Lakes, the hardest-hit region in a country that has lost four million manufacturing jobs over the last decade.

Throw in solar energy along with generating power from crops, and the continued embrace of renewable energy would create as many as five million jobs by 2030, asserts Daniel M. Kammen, director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, and an adviser to the presidential campaign of Senator Barack Obama.

The unfolding financial crisis seems likely to slow the pace of development, making investment harder to secure. But renewable energy has already gathered what analysts say is unstoppable momentum. In Texas, the oil baron T. Boone Pickens is developing what would be the largest wind farm in the world. Most states now require that a significant percentage of electricity be generated from wind, solar and biofuels, effectively giving the market a government mandate.

And many analysts expect the United States to eventually embrace some form of new regulatory system aimed at curbing global warming that would force coal-fired electricity plants to pay for the pollution they emit. That could make wind, solar and other alternative fuels competitive in terms of the cost of producing electricity.

Both presidential candidates have made expanding renewable energy a policy priority. Senator Obama, the Democratic nominee, has outlined plans to spend $150 billion over the next decade to spur private companies to invest. Senator John McCain, the Republican nominee, has spoken more generally of the need for investment.

In June, more than 12,000 people and 770 exhibitors jammed a convention center in Houston for the annual American Wind Energy Association trade show. “Five years ago, we were all walking around in Birkenstocks,” says John M. Brown, managing director of a turbine manufacturer, Entegrity Wind Systems of Boulder, Colo., which had a booth on the show floor. “Now it’s all suits. You go to a seminar, and it’s getting taught by lawyers and bankers.” more

State taps city planner to guide coastal zone


Sergio Mendoza, who has helped shape Hobart's residential and commercial landscape for the last five years as city planner, now has his sights set on development on a regional scale.

Mendoza, 34, has been hired by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources to help communities in Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties responsibly develop Lake Michigan's coastal zone.

At its widest point, the zone extends south from the lake's shoreline 17 miles to Crown Point and at its narrowest point, less than 2 miles, just north of Hudson Lake in LaPorte County.

"Whenever someone plans a major project, we want to look at its social, economic and environmental impact," said Mendoza, who will join the Chesterton office of the Indiana Lake Michigan Coastal Program as a resource planner next month.

The state program supports local activities designed to preserve and restore the lake's natural and cultural resources.

"Our concern is for anything that would have an impact on Lake Michigan," said Mendoza, who earned an undergraduate degree in planning and urban development from Ball State University.

He is pursuing a master's degree in communications from Purdue University Calumet.

Mendoza will be responsible for reviewing development plans and provide local planning departments with technical assistance to manage in accordance with smart growth principles and coastal lane conservation standards.

Maria Galka, president of the Hobart Plan Commission, said Mendoza's departure will be a loss for the city. more

EcoTrack 11: Flourishing algae elevate Lake Erie concerns

A walk down the shore of Lake Erie shows a developing problem. Algae blooms are flourishing, and it's raising concerns about the health of the lake.

"It's a step backwards in terms of what is going on. We want to make sure we do something now that stops it and that we don't have problems for the future," says Western Lake Erie Waterkeeper Sandy Bihn.

The problem is lyngbya algae, and it's clouding the water and littering the shores. If something is not done, there could be big consequences.

"It could go back to fish kills, reductions in fish populations, those kind of things. As a result, this stuff effects the food chain, it effects water quality," Bihn says.

Unlike typical algae, this type doesn't seem to go away as the lake waters cool this time of year.

"Actually it's worse sometimes in January and February if you come here you would see it rolling up on the shore as green water."

Just a few years ago, a beautiful sandy beach is now so thick with algae, you have to shovel it away.

While the exact cause is unknown, power plants, sewage plants, and chemicals such as phosphorous reaching the lake are big concerns.

"We need to do things that can help it, such as dishwasher detergent, if you use that, check the phosphorous levels in it. Some have up to 8.5%, you can buy it down to almost zero. Lawn, fertilizers, when your lawn is mature, you don't need it," says Bihn. more