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Utility to pay $12M to remove NW Indiana town’s tainted soil

March 10, 2022 GMT

TOWN OF PINES, Ind. (AP) — A utility must pay $12 million under a federal consent decree to remove soil tainted by coal ash from around homes in a small northwest Indiana community where the local aquifer is contaminated by the power plant waste.

Northern Indiana Public Service Co., or NIPSCO, reached an agreement last week with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency detailing how the contamination at Portage County’s Town of Pines will be fully cleaned up, The Indianapolis Star reported Thursday.

For many years, NIPSCO dumped coal ash, the byproduct of burning coal to generate electricity, in a landfill that sat on top of the town’s aquifer. Coal ash also was used as “fill” during construction at building sites and under the roads of the town of about 600 residents.

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Coal ash contains a mix of heavy metals such as arsenic, lead and mercury, which in high levels can damage the nervous system and create an increased risk for certain cancers.

Sampling by state officials shows that heavy metals from coal ash have leached into the Town of Pines’ water supply.

Some residents and environmental advocates have expressed frustration that the cleanup process has moved slowly even though the EPA has long known about the pollution in the town, where the contamination led to the creation of a federal Superfund site.

“Why is NIPSCO still cleaning up the toxic mess after 20 years?” asked Lisa Evans, a senior attorney for the environmental group Earthjustice who specializes in coal ash. “It is important to realize that this site is not an isolated waste dump. This Superfund site is a town where people live.”

The federal decree, which a judge must approve after a public comment period, calls for NIPSCO to test the soil at about 400 homes and businesses in the town, located about one mile (1.6 kilometers) south of Lake Michigan.

In any areas where contamination is detected at levels above EPA’s standards, NIPSCO must excavate the tainted soil and move it to a licensed waste disposal facility.

The utility must then restore those properties with clean soil and monitor surface water, groundwater and drinking water wells to ensure contamination hasn’t migrated farther. The work is expected to cost nearly $11.8 million.

Nick Meyer, spokesman for NIPSCO’s parent company NiSource, said the consent decree filed on March 4 reflects a continued effort to address the coal ash contamination that has been underway for years. He said the utility is committed to completing that work.

“Protecting human health and the environment is vital,” he said. “That remains the focus of the work NIPSCO has done in the Town of Pines and will continue to do under the Consent Decree.”

The EPA and the state of Indiana will oversee the cleanup, with NISPCO paying any costs incurred. The utility also will reimburse EPA for a large percentage of its past costs and pay all future expenses incurred by the federal and state agencies in overseeing the cleanup.