Water contamination in West Olive: What Consumers Energy and Sierra Club data tell us


GVL \ Caleb Worpel

Olivia Fellows, Staff Reporter

Last month, a report released by the Michigan Chapter of the Sierra Club detailed possible water contamination in four homes in the West Olive neighborhood. The environmental organization attributed the contamination through a public press release to coal ash pollution leaching into the private wells near Consumers Energy’s J.H. Campbell Coal Plant. However, data and testing from Consumers Energy’s reports appear to refute the Sierra Club’s claim assertion that the contamination was due to the plant’s coal ash ponds on its site. 

The Sierra Club’s testing data was not released publicly along with its initial press release on the findings, and was made available to the Lanthorn after copies of the documents were requested. The Consumers Energy coal ash testing information has been available to the public through the company’s website, which provide testing results for the plant through their annual groundwater monitoring reports that go back a number of years. The dangers of water contamination are known to many Michigan residents due to the Flint crisis, but this contamination appears to only be affecting private wells and is less likely to lead to major contamination spread. However, even lower levels of contamination can cause adverse health effects. 

Heightened levels of chemicals like arsenic, barium and lead in the bloodstream and body can cause severe gastrointestinal reactions and can lead to higher chances of bone, liver and breast cancer. Lead contamination in the body can damage the central nervous system. Locating and verifying the potential causes of contamination in water sources is an important part of informing and protecting public safety. 

The areas tested by Sierra Club researchers were located on Croswell Shore Trail and Olive Shore Avenue north of the plant, as well as two homes on Lake Avenue Port Sheldon and Blair Street, south of the J.H. Campbell plant. These homes get their water from private wells. Sierra Club’s testing showed heightened levels of contaminants like lead, arsenic and radium in the water.  

According to the Sierra Club, water samples taken from three homes near the plant in West Olive in July showed arsenic levels over two and a half times the normal levels for safe drinking water. Sierra Club tested four residential wells, in which three of those four wells showed levels of constituents identified by Sierra Club below drinking water standards. Only one well contained levels of arsenic and lead above drinking water standards. Additionally, Sierra’s initial tests also showed high levels of barium and radium in three homes.  

Yet according to additional testing done by Consumers Energy at the J.H. Campbell Plant through a third-party laboratory, groundwater results did not exceed drinking water standards for lead, barium or arsenic in wells directly adjacent to the landfills and ash ponds. Consumers Energy has tested its own drinking water supply wells on the site and found them all to be below drinking water standards for these same constituents. 

Although isolated exceedances of arsenic have been noted on Consumers Energy’s property directly next to landfills or ash ponds, perimeter wells around the site confirm arsenic is not leaving the site at levels exceeding drinking water standards. 

Professor of Water Resources at Grand Valley State University’s Robert B. Annis Water Resources Institute Rick Rediske said that because the house that tested for elevated levels of arsenic in its water supply was located north of the plant, the contamination is unlikely to have come from the J.H. Campbell Plant. The locations of the other houses also showed that contamination from the J.H. Campbell Plant was unlikely due to their situation in relation to the plant and its coal ash pits. 

“The well with the higher levels of arsenic is at the opposite end of the facility — it is very unlikely the arsenic is from Consumers in that scenario,” Rediske said. “The house on Blair Street is too far away on the other side of the river to be influenced by Consumers and that leaves only the house on Lake Avenue, and there are three dots on the map, all on the opposite side of the river. Water would need to travel under the Pigeon River and Pigeon Lake to reach the house, which is remotely possible.” 

Additionally, Consumers Energy says it has also made several changes to their coal ash ponds on their facility grounds in recent months, including closing or filling in some of the ponds completely. The ash management area is located east and across Lake Shore Drive from the generating plants. This area contains Consumers Energy’s closed ash ponds and landfills as well as the robust groundwater monitoring network. 

Work has been completed to close all the ash ponds on the site, which have been replaced for daily operations with concrete tanks. The only ash disposal unit that is still being used at J.H. Campbell is the licensed landfill which contains an engineered double-liner system to prevent leeching potential contamination. 

Director of media relations at Consumers Energy Katie Carey explained that Consumers Energy has always maintained a goal of keeping contaminants on all sites contained or safely disposed of. The Campbell plant has been operational for almost 60 years and has been certified by the Wildlife Habitat Council.

“All of our coal plants, including the J.H. Campbell plant, have historically been the backbone of our energy supply fueling Michigan’s homes and businesses,” Carey said. “However, with a changing world, our company is moving toward a renewable energy future in our company’s Clean Energy Plan. Under the Clean Energy Plan, our three remaining coal-fired plants at the Campbell Generating Complex would operate until the end of their design lives.” 

Under this new initiative, Consumers Energy’s Campbell plants one and two would run until 2031, while Campbell three, equipped with state-of-the-art air quality control systems, would continue to serve customers until 2040. 

As a part of their investigation into the potential contamination, Sierra Club spoke with a handful of West Olive residents to see if any of them had noticed any adverse health effects as a result of their water supply. There were no reports of major health issues from residents, and residents who did report effects from their water supply only expressed heightened levels of the chemicals in the bloodstream following recent doctor’s visits.

After using a filter in their home or drinking other sources of water, most residents found that these levels reverted back to normal within a few weeks. Despite there being no reports of deadly health effects, residents are still eager to know where the contamination could have come from and what local authorities are doing to combat the contamination risks. 

Senior public information director for Consumers Energy Roger Morgenstern said that the public’s safety is a top priority for officials at every Consumers Energy plant. Morgenstern expressed that the company is dedicated to making sure people are informed if there is ever any risk of contamination and that Consumers Energy shares Sierra Club’s mission of providing Grand Rapids area residents with a safe drinking water supply. 

 “We’re committed to safely handling, storing and disposing coal ash and have replaced all ash storage ponds at the J.H. Campbell site with concrete tanks. All coal ash generated is either beneficially reused as permitted by law or placed in the state-licensed landfill facility at the Campbell site,” Morgenstern said. “We share the Sierra Club’s passion for clean and safe water, and safety is Consumers Energy’s top priority. Nothing is more important than protecting our neighbors, employees, customers and the planet we all cherish.”

The Michigan Chapter of the Sierra Club has yet to come forward with additional testing results or information regarding the reports since publishing the initial press release or publish any official dates or locations for the additional testing required. Sierra Club representatives expressed that plans to further investigate the source of contamination are in discussion, and that they hope to provide additional information once more testing has been conducted to provide the public with a comprehensive analysis in response to Consumers Energy’s data and testing results.