A news release from the Sierra Club:

Madison, Wisconsin – Today, the Sierra Club issued a Notice of Intent to sue We Energies for the October 31 flood of coal ash into Lake Michigan when an old landfill located on the bluff collapsed at a construction site at the company’s Oak Creek coal plant.

“We Energies must be held responsible for the toxic mess at the bottom of Lake Michigan,” explained Jennifer Feyerherm of Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign. “We Energies has essentially turned Lake Michigan, a national treasure that supplies drinking water to over 10 million people, into a coal ash dump. We Energies filled a ravine next to Lake Michigan with coal ash, and it is that ash that now lies at the bottom of the lake. This was a predicted and preventable disaster.”

A biologist from the Southeastern Wisconsin Planning Commission raised concerns about the structural stability of the bluff when We Energies was planning to develop the site. As construction proceeded, the bluff collapsed, covering the shoreline with an estimated 25,000 cubic yards of coal ash and soil and dumping 2,500 cubic yards of coal ash and soil into the lake.

The Notice of Intent to sue alleges that the pollutants in the coal ash at the bottom of Lake Michigan “pose an imminent and substantial endangerment to human health and the environment.”

Coal ash is the toxic byproduct of burning coal. Heavy metals such as arsenic, mercury, chromium, and molybdenum remain in the ash after coal is burned. These toxic metals are linked to many health effects including cancer, birth defects, kidney damage, and nerve damage. In fact, studies have likened the risk of living near a coal ash site to smoking a pack of cigarettes each day. These toxic metals also put our fragile Great Lakes ecosystem at risk, threatening aquatic habitat and building up in the food chain.

“There are more than 2,000 toxic coal ash sites in the U.S. polluting our air and water, and now there is a new one on the bottom of Lake Michigan,” noted Melissa Warner, a volunteer leader with the Sierra Club that lives south of the coal ash dump. “My family’s drinking water comes from the lake. We Energies must clean up its mess and prevent any disaster like this from happening again.”

To date, there has been little information available to the local community about where the coal ash in the lake is going, what it will take to clean it up, and when the cleanup might be completed. Today’s Notice of Intent to sue is the first step in legal action against We Energies to force the company to clean up the toxic coal ash.

Ever since the TVA coal ash disaster in 2008, the Environmental Protection Agency has been trying to enact national protections to stop this kind of disastrous spill from happening.

“Communities here in Wisconsin and across the nation remain at risk and unprotected,” concluded Feyerherm. “The burning of coal is a public health menace. This spill is yet another illustration that as long as we are still mining and burning coal, our families and communities are paying the price.”

More posts on the spill and utilities.