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Is That Coal on the Beach?

Chunks of a coal and black powdery material have washed up along the shoreline in Caledonia. The DNR says the coal likely fell off a barge years ago and the black powdery stuff isn't coal ash at all, but rather magnetite.

A resident living just south of the We Energies Oak Creek Power Plant says she has been seeing quite a bit of what she believes is coal ash as well as chunks of coal washing up along the shores of Lake Michigan.

The chunks of coal were wedged between the rocks on the beach, but there was also a powdery metallic substance in the sand.

But an official with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources says the powdery stuff on the shore probably is not coal ash, which contains arsenic, lead, mercury and other chemicals and has been linked to cancer. The coal on the beach, however, is indeed coal.

After the We Energies bluff collapse in 2011, the company dredged the water to remove as much of the coal ash as they could and then they dumped it into a nearby landfill. But now chunks of coal and what Caledonia resident Maurenn Michna says is coal ash have washed up along the shoreline. She used a metal detector to check out the material, Michna said, and found it contained metals.

"We used a metal detector and scooped up some of the black sand near the water....You can see the coal ash and the metal shavings, but they are saying it’s not metals, and it's all up and down the beaches," Michna said.

But Eric Nitschke, southeast regional director for the DNR, said the coal may have fallen off of a barge years ago.

"There were coal barges that carried quite a bit of coal through this area at one time because it used to be one of the shipping lanes," Nitschke said. "But we can't speculate on how it got (on the beach), but we're making sure that it's not a health hazard."

Rather than coal, Nitschke said the black material is likely magnetite, a naturally occurring metal. The DNR will run further lab tests on the substance, Nitschke said.

We Energies spokesman Brian Manthey said:

The DNR was out there recently in response to a similar request from the residents in the area...If the material is consistent with what we have observed and have tested in the past, it is not coal ash. Because it is highly magnetic, it is even more of an indication that it is not coal ash.

In one instance last year, the EPA and us analyzed similar samples that were found further south. They reached the same conclusion that we did. It was not coal ash. In fact, we took samples of similar material to the north of the plant (Bender Park) and it was consistent with what was found on the beach. The samples were taken north of the plant because that would be the best indicator of lake background vs. possible plant impact.

Manthey explained in November 2011 that the landfill the coal ash is going into has a clay liner on the bottom. Above that is a drain tile system, which consists of a gravel and sand mixture, then there’s the coal ash. When water lands on the landfill, it goes through the leachate system and the water goes into a holding tank, then it’s taken by truck to their wastewater treatment system.

Some environmental groups have raised concerns about coal ash since it contains arsenic, lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium and selenium, which are "known to cause cancer and neurological damage in humans. They can also harm and kill wildlife, especially fish and other water-dwelling species." And if inhaled, some of the "forms of recycling may endanger human health from airborne particles, even where no water is involved," wrote Barbara Gottlieb, a Harvard professor in a report.

However, in the past officials with We Energies have disputed with those claims. Cathy Schulze, a spokeswoman for We Energies, said in a prior interview that coal ash is not a toxic substance, and it isn't listed as a toxic substance by the EPA.

"We even recycle 100 percent of the coal ash we produce," she said.

mau November 28, 2012 at 12:14 AM
How big are the chunks of coal? A relative who lives on the east side of Douglas and nowhere near the plant, nor next to the lake, has found several large chunks partially buried in their back yard.
Andy November 28, 2012 at 07:38 PM
The DNR is a political entity run by a political appointee. Cathy Stepp had no serious scientific background or experience when she was appointed by the Governor. So DNR spokesman says he can't speculate, but does exactly that, suggesting this coal may have come from a long ago barge. There is a black sand beach that has sprung up in SE Wisconsin. Have you ever seen a black sand beach in WI? What a coincidence that is just showed up down current from a gigantic coal ash spill.
JQCitizen November 29, 2012 at 02:05 PM
Maybe the beach was naughty.
Bren December 03, 2012 at 09:22 PM
Isn't coal ash slightly radioactive? A simple test should be able to figure out what's currently in our freshwater supply.
Amanda Tadisch August 13, 2013 at 05:05 PM
Down in Cudahy by old cement boat docks, there is a ton of coal chunks and lava rocks and cooled lava.

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