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NIPSCO delays coal ash removal

MICHIGAN CITY — Environmental groups are applauding an announcement from NIPSCO that work to remove coal ash from ponds in Michigan City will be delayed until spring, but the groups still have other concerns.

NIPSCO announced on Thursday that the work to close its five coal ash ponds at the Michigan City Generating Station will be moved until spring 2021.

The adjustment to the start date “still keeps NIPSCO’s plans ahead of the required 2023 deadline to complete the proposed ash pond work, while allowing the company to advance other community improvement projects,” a statement from the company said.

Those projects include electric and gas system modernization work across the company’s northern Indiana service territory.

The utility conducted a virtual public meeting in April with the Indiana Department of Environmental Management to present its plan to close the ponds, which was followed by a public comment period.

During the comment period, the NAACP La Porte County Branch, Just Transition NWI, the Hoosier Environmental Council, Save the Dunes, and Earthjustice submitted a petition to IDEM with more than 3,200 signatures urging a delay in the removal until after the COVID-19 pandemic is over.

NIPSCO spokesman Nick Meyer said the delay was not related to the coronavirus.

“Community input is an important part of the process, but our decision to shift the timing is not related to COVID-19,” he said.

He also pointed out that the removal and transport of coal ash residue has been an ongoing process for years.

“As part of our normal operations today, we safely transport 50,000 tons of ash material each year from Michigan City to our Schahfer facility. This work is very similar and the material will be transported to the same location.”

Coal ash is leftover material that remains when coal is burned to generate electricity – similar to the leftover material when wood is burned in a fire, according to NIPSCO.

About 14,500 tons of coal ash are “beneficially reused” each year, along with the 50,000 tons that are transported to the Schahfer plant in Wheatfield each year, the company said.

The plan seeks to remove the remaining coal ash material from the ponds and replace it with clean fill, which meets the recently updated Coal Combustion Residuals (CCR) rule, the company said.

The CCR rule was designed by the U.S. EPA to ensure the safe disposal and management of coal ash at coal-fired electric generating stations across the nation, including a focus on groundwater quality, the company said.

The pond closures are “another step forward” toward NIPSCO’s plans to retire 100 percent of its remaining coal-fired generation by 2028 and “transition to lower-cost, reliable and cleaner energy sources including wind, solar and battery storage technology,” the company said.

A statement from the environmental groups said the delay in removal was a necessary step, but said they still have concerns with the plan.

“NIPSCO announced that they will postpone the removal of 170,600 cubic yards of coal ash from the Michigan City coal plant until Spring 2021,” the statement said.

“Studies show that an increase in air pollution, which may result from the movement of the hazardous ash, increases mortality from COVID-19. NIPSCO’s willingness to address community concerns is important, and the delay has been acknowledged as a necessary step within the closure process.”

However, just delaying the process is not enough, the groups say.

“As the petition also demands, when the time is appropriate for this removal process, IDEM and NIPSCO must implement much stronger safety measures than the utility is currently proposing to protect the impacted communities, workers and environment from exposure to toxic ash.”

Meyer said, “Constant oversight, inspections and dust control measures will be in place to ensure the work is being conducted safely.”

The groups also want more public safeguards for air, water and aquatic life in the draft plan. A letter signed by several organizations was submitted, along with the petition, to IDEM on Monday.

Among the requests is the immediate testing of sediment and aquatic life in Trail Creek and Lake Michigan, “as the bioaccumulative toxins in coal ash, such as arsenic, may be accumulating in fish that are consumed by local residents,” the letter said.

“Consumption of heavy metals in fish tissue can pose grave health hazards. While NIPSCO maintains that there is no risk to Lake Michigan and Trail Creek from the leaking coal ash ponds, the company has never tested the sediment or the aquatic life near the plant.”

The utility said the removal process is safe and testing is being done.

“The data collected to date as part of the ash pond closure plans indicates there is no risk to human health or the environment; no impacts to drinking water supplied by neighboring communities; and nothing to indicate that the state’s waters are adversely affected,” the company said.

Among other items, the petition requests that:

NIPSCO works with a independent Community Advisory Committee to assess the cleanup and closure process

IDEM publishes an online page so public comments/concerns can be readily collected

IDEM establishes and enforces procedures with consequences for non-compliance

Hires an experienced, neutral third-party to monitor the air for particulate matter near the Michigan City and Schahfer sites during excavation and transportation

IDEM inspects both sites regularly, monitoring for and minimizing airborne dust

NIPSCO transports the coal ash in “sift proof” vehicles to prevent ash from escaping

NIPSCO permanently secures the coal ash fill at Michigan City to prevent the possibility of future spills into Lake Michigan and Trail Creek; and extends water monitoring to encompass off-site migration

NIPSCO said those concerns are already being addressed.

The company will continue to work with IDEM to “ensure that closure plans comply with all state and federal requirements; coordinate future work with local Michigan City and La Porte County officials; and work to keep the community informed,” the statement said.

To learn more about NIPSCOs plan, visit NIPSCO.com/environmental and reference CCR Data.

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Nearly 30 La Porte County small businesses qualify for COVID-19 relief grants

La PORTE — Several dozen small businesses may be only days away from receiving an influx of cash that can keep them going amid the current economic downturn caused by COVID-19.

On Wednesday, county officials accepted the first batch of grant recipients through the recently created La Porte County Action Fund, a program that provides up to $10,000 in emergency relief to qualifying county small businesses.

An oversight committee – comprised of members of the La Porte County Redevelopment Commission – approved the requests of 27 of the 28 companies that applied for grant dollars earlier this month. They are now in line to receive a combined $240,000, said Tony Rodriguez, director of the Office of Community and Economic Development, who is spearheading the initiative.

With the committee’s blessing, Rodriguez has forwarded the applications to the Indiana Office of Community and Rural Affairs, the agency funding the Action Fund program, for final approval.

The state office is promising a two- to three-day turnaround on requests, at which point the county can begin distributing funds, he said.

Qualifying small businesses can use the money – which Rodriguez and other La Porte County leaders have described as “lifeline” funding – to cover payroll, inventory, rent, utilities and other expenses critical to staying in operation during the economic downturn.

“While [this funding] can’t happen fast enough, the fact that it is happening will go a long way to help each of these applicants,” Rodriguez said Thursday.

The county rolled out the program earlier this month, after receiving a $250,000 grant from OCRA in late April. La Porte County was one of more than 60 Indiana communities to receive funding from the state, which had begun directing dollars from the federal Community Development Block Grant program to assist areas impacted by COVID-19.

A total of 28 companies applied for relief before the end of the first grant cycle on June 12, Rodriguez said.

After that, he and Bailey McGrath, community development specialist with the economic development office, spent days working with business owners, gathering additional information to ensure application met federal CDBG guidelines.

Among other requirements, businesses had to certify that employees and their families had incomes that met or were below the county’s median income level, Rodriguez said.

Although one of the initial stipulations for the grants limited funding to businesses outside of incorporated municipalities – such as Michigan City and La Porte – state Rep. Jim Pressel convinced the agency to allow companies from smaller towns, like Westville, to apply for assistance, Rodriguez said.

Despite the extensive verification process, only one of the applicants failed to make the final cut because it was within the La Porte city limits, Rodriguez said.

One of the things the director is most happy about is the impact the money will have on businesses across the county – including in smaller communities like Union Mills, he said.

“Every small business investing in these communities is just as important, if not more so, than those on the outskirts of Michigan City or La Porte,” he said.

With demand from local businesses still outstripping the county’s pool of relief money, Rodriguez intends to seek additional CDBG funding from OCRA, which is currently offering a second round of grants.