The new coal ash clean-up project will take four years and cost 268-million dollars. (Photo courtesy of Brian Stansberry)
More than a year ago – when an earthen wall broke at a power plant in Tennessee, 500-million gallons of toxic coal ash and water were spilled. If you compare it to other environmental tragedies – it was 50 times bigger than the Exxon Valdez spill. Half of the coal ash spill’s been cleaned up, but crews are still working to get the rest of it. And as Tanya Ott reports there are concerns about a new plan to deal with the ash:
More than a year ago – when an earthen wall broke at a power plant in Tennessee – 500-million gallons of toxic coal ash and water were spilled. If you compare it to other environmental tragedies – it was 50 times bigger than the Exxon Valdez spill. Half of the coal ash spill’s been cleaned up, but crews are still working to get the rest of it. And as Tanya Ott reports there are concerns about a new plan to deal with the ash:
The plan comes from the US Environmental Protection Agency. Clean-up crews would scoop up the ash and put it in the same pit it came from… but the pit’s been reinforced with concrete. What the plan doesn’t call for, though, is a liner to make sure no metals leach into groundwater. Tennessee law and even the EPA’s new proposed coal ash rules require liners.
Craig Zeller is the project manager for the EPA. He says because this pit isn’t new – or expanding – it doesn’t have to comply with the rules. Plus, he says, water testing in the area shows there’s no problem with leaching.
“If, in the future it does show that we need to add a groundwater mediation piece to this, we will!”
Adding a liner after-the-fact could be difficult and expensive. The new clean-up project will take four years and cost 268-million dollars.
Thirty years ago this month (November 10th), the iron ore carrier the Edmund Fitzgerald sank in Lake Superior. 29 men died. The lake carrier was caught in one of the worst storms recorded on the Great Lakes. In the years since the Edmund Fitzgerald went down, the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Mike Simonson has talked with those connected with the ship:
Thirty years ago this month (November 10th), the iron ore carrier, the Edmund Fitzgerald, sank in
Lake Superior. 29 men died. The lake carrier was caught in one of the worst storms recorded on
the Great Lakes. In the years since the Edmund Fitzgerald went down, the Great Lakes Radio
Consortium’s Mike Simonson has talked with those connected with the ship:
Like the folk song relates, the November gales came early on Lake Superior in 1975. A storm
more fierce than even the most experienced lake carrier crews had ever seen hit the eastern side
of the lake. That night, Captain Dudley Paquette was shipmaster of the lake carrier Wilfred
“We were really out right in the middle of the lake. Just huge seas, 30-35 foot seas. I was
completely awash and I was on a super ship. I was registering 70, 75 knots steady with gusts to
100. Huge seas, I was completely awash. Water was flying over the top of my bridge.”
Like the carrier Wilfred Sykes, the Edmund Fitzgerald was a big ship, but early in the night the
captain saw ominous signs of trouble. The topside fence rails had snapped. The vents were torn
off. The radar was out. And the Edmund Fitzgerald’s Captain, Ernest McSorley had all the bilge
pumps on, trying to keep the ship from swamping.
Thom Holden is the curator of the Army Corps of Engineers Marine Museum. He says Captain
McSorley was in radio contact with Captain Jesse Cooper of the nearest ship, the Arthur
“The topside damage was an earlier report. After suffering this damage that Captain McSorley
did contact Cooper and ask him to shadow him down the lake. It was really several hours later
that what could be the last transmission from the Fitzgerald was received. Essentially Captain
Cooper or the mate asked McSorley how he was doing, how the vessel was riding. He said
‘We’re holding our own, going along like an old shoe.'”
In an interview from his retirement home in Florida, Arthur Anderson Captain Jesse Cooper said
the memory of that night still haunts him. He says Captain McSorley didn’t let on that his ship
and crew were in danger.
“I think he knew he was in trouble but he couldn’t spread the word because it would panic the
crew. (Simonson): How do you think he knew he was in trouble? (Cooper) What the hell would
you think if you had a hole in your bottom and were taking in more water than you could pump
At 7:10 that evening, the Fitzgerald disappeared from radar as it sailed into a snow squall only a
few miles from the safety of Whitefish Bay.
“My gut feeling was I knew she was gone when I couldn’t see her on the scope. Turning around,
I hated the thought of going back out in that sea.”
Radio communication from that night was recorded by the Coast Guard at Sault St. Marie
Michigan. The Coast Guard was asking captains to turn back into the storm and search for the
Fitzgerald. You’ll hear a distressed Captain Cooper answer the call.
“(Coast Guard:) Think there’s any possibility that you could turn around do any searching, over?’
(Cooper) ‘Oh God, I don’t know. That sea out there is tremendously large. If you want me to, I
can but I’m not going to be making any time. I’ll be lucky to do two or three miles per hour going
back out that way, over.’ (Coast Guard:) It looks like with the information we have that it is fairly
certain that the Fitzgerald went down. We’re talking now a matter of life and death and looking
for survivors that might be in life rafts or in the water. We can only ask the masters to do their
best without hazarding their vessels.'”
The U.S. Coast Guard rescue vessel Woodrush had left the Duluth port but it took 21 hours to
arrive on scene. Captain Jimmy Hobaugh says a life ring from the Fitzgerald popped up as they
“Of course we searched for the three full days and it was rougher than you can imagine. No
matter how I turned the ship, we were taking green water over the top. If there had been someone
there, I’m positive that my crew was good enough that we would’ve got ’em.”
None of the men’s bodies were recovered.
Among the crew of 29 was Third Mate Michael Armagost of Iron River, Wisconsin. His widow
Janice says the families of the 29 men who went down with the Edmund Fitzgerald struggle with
“Nobody realizes that there are survivors. I mean, my kids’ father is on that ship and my
husband’s on that ship. And people just think of it as a shipwreck that happened so long ago, and
The families of the crew of the ship now say all they want is the final resting place of their loved
ones to remain undisturbed by divers. Only the bell of the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald was
recovered and placed in the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point, Michigan ten
The consequences of the tainted water tragedy in southern Ontario are still being assessed. Seven people died and more than two thousand were made sick nearly two years ago, when the bacteria E. coli was found in drinking water in Walkerton, Ontario. An inquiry into the tragedy lasted more than a year, and a preliminary report was released last month. It blamed the two men in charge of the public utilities commission in Walkerton. But it also pointed the finger at cuts made years before by the Ontario government. Environmentalists across the Great Lakes are concerned that unless the lessons of Walkerton are learned on both sides of the border, water supplies will again be placed at risk. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Dan Karpenchuk reports:
The consequences of the tainted water tragedy in southern Ontario are still being assessed. Seven people died and more than two thousand were made sick nearly two years ago when the bacteria, E. coli, was found in drinking water in Walkerton, Ontario. An inquiry into the tragedy lasted more than a year, and a preliminary report was released last month. It blamed the two men in charge of the public utilities commission in Walkerton. But it also pointed the finger at cuts made years before by the Ontario government. Environmentalists across the Great Lakes are concerned that unless the lessons of Walkerton are learned on both sides of the border, water supplies will again be placed at risk. The Great Lakes Radio Consortiums Dan Karpenchuk reports from Toronto:
Walkerton is a small community of five thousand people about 135 miles northwest of Toronto not far from Lake Huron. There’s some light industry, some tourism… but agriculture is the economic mainstay. The E. coli disaster put the town of Walkerton in the headlines, where it’s remained. Some still feel the effects of the tainted water through an assortment of medical symptoms and complications. Others won’t drink the water; no matter what assurances they’ve been given that it’s safe. Many, like Robert Cooney, remain bitter.
“People in this town are sick of the whole thing. Yes, they got compensation. But for the people that are on dialysis and the people that lost loved ones, we’re looking for something. Something went wrong.”
There was a lot that went wrong, according to the man who headed the inquiry into the tragedy. In January, Justice Dennis O’Connor released his report. He concluded that the brothers who ran the Public Utilities Commission contributed directly to the tragedy, first by failing to properly monitor the drinking water, then by trying to cover up the emerging catastrophe by actively misleading health officials, assuring them the water was safe.
But O’Connor also turned his criticism on the government of Ontario, saying cuts to the MOE, or Ministry of Environment, undermined its ability to deal with the problems in Walkerton.
“The provincial government’s budget reductions led to the discontinuation of government laboratory testing services for municipalities in 1996.”
Now six years later, those services still have not been reinstated.
“In implementing this decision, the government should have enacted a regulation mandating that testing laboratories immediately and directly notify the MOE and the medical officer of health of adverse results. Had the government done this, the boil water advisory would have been issued by May 19 at the latest, thereby preventing hundreds of illnesses.”
The Conservative government in Ontario reacted quickly to the allegations. Premier Mike Harris, who early on during the inquiry, maintained that his government’s policies were not to blame, now did an about face.
“I deeply regret any factors leading to the events of May 2000, that were the responsibility of the government of Ontario either prior to or during my tenure as premier.”
Harris went further in his attempts to limit the political damage. He said many of the recommendations made by Justice O’Connor would be implemented. They included continuous chlorine monitors for wells, increased inspections and better training for operators.
But many critics say they they’re not convinced. They say a week after the 700-page report was released, neither Harris nor any member of his cabinet, had read it.
Far from Walkerton, the political fallout is being felt most in Toronto, seat of the province’s legislature…. and home to many of Ontario’s environmental groups.
The Canadian Institute for Environmental Law and Policies says the problems in Walkerton have called attention to the broader issue of water quality in the region. Researchers say the amount of pollutants discharged into rivers and lakes more than doubled between 1995 and 1999. And over the same period the number of provincial water testing sites was cut by two thirds.
That could have serious implications for the province’s lakes and rivers…. and since those systems feed into the Great Lakes, the entire region is at risk.
Professor Louis Mallott was involved in the study….
“We concluded that Ontario is unable to assess the overall quality of Ontario’s inland waters that flow into the Great Lakes. And this is necessary to determine whether Ontario’s environmental policies are effective.”
Over the past year almost four hundred cases of bad water have turned up in Ontario. E. coli and other bacteria have plagued water systems in towns, trailer parks, schools, private homes and even a nudist colony. And that worries people like Paul Muldoon, the executive director of the Canadian Environmental Law Association. Muldoon says Ontario is also sending a clear message south of the border, and it’s not a positive one.
“I am convinced that if I was in the U.S. right now, I could at least legitimately raise the issue, saying lookit Canadians sure we cause stresses in the Great Lakes and there’s lots of issues here. But don’t talk to us until you get your act together and Walkerton is a glowing example, you do not have your act together. And since Walkerton there’s not a lot of evidence you’ve got your act together yet despite that wake up call, despite the depth of that tragedy.”
The Ontario government, however, insists the situation is improving.
But critics aren’t buying it. They say Ontario’s environmental problems have not only jeopardized the province, but could affect the entire Great Lakes region. They say there is a clear message to governments on both sides of the border…. that budget cuts and privatization could lead to more tragedies like Walkerton.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Dan Karpenchuk.