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Home / Environment / DNR blames bluff collapse on lack of pond liner (UPDATE)

DNR blames bluff collapse on lack of pond liner (UPDATE)

The DNR says an Oct. 31 bluff collapse at the We Energies power plant along the Lake Michigan shoreline in Oak Creek may have been caused by the lack of a liner in a storm-water pond. (File photo by Kevin Harnack)

OAK CREEK, Wis. (AP) – Wisconsin regulators investigating a bluff collapse at a Milwaukee-area power plant last Halloween say a “significant factor” may have been the lack of a liner in a storm-water pond.

The state Department of Natural Resources issued a notice of violation Thursday to We Energies, saying the utility violated regulations when it built a pond in and above a coal-ash landfill on its Oak Creek site.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported the utility could face fines of up to $5,000 per day.

Utility spokesman Barry McNulty said it’s disputing the finding because it doesn’t believe a liner was necessary in this case.

According to the DNR, a liner could have helped prevent water from saturating the soil in the bluff. But McNulty said another way to accomplish the same thing was to replace discarded coal ash with suitable soil, which is what the utility did.

When the state granted We Energies a conditional grant of exemption to build on the former ash landfill, the permit required the utility to “install liner where ponds or open channels are constructed over the waste areas,” the DNR said.

After ash was found and removed during the construction process, the project’s general contractor never submitted plans to incorporate a liner in the pond’s design, the DNR said.

The collapse happened in a landfill created when the utility dumped coal-ash in a ravine in the 1950s, before state law required that ash be disposed of in licensed and lined landfills.

Tons of coal ash and debris were swept into and around Lake Michigan, destroying a temporary storage building and sending a pickup truck and other equipment tumbling into the lake. There were no injuries.

The DNR report acknowledges other potential sources of water that saturated the soil in the bluff, but it says the proximity of the pond to the collapse gave it “the greatest potential to impact hydrologic conditions in the bluff collapse area.”

Eric Nitschke, the agency’s southeast region director, said he couldn’t comment on We Energies’ objections.

“We’ll be working through their contention on how they viewed everything, and it’ll be something that should play out through the process,” he said.

The DNR said the basin was constructed three years ago, which means the utility could theoretically face daily fines since that time.

We Energies and the DNR are scheduled to meet next week to discuss the alleged violations. After that, the DNR could continue negotiations, issue a citation or refer the matter to the state Department of Justice for enforcement action.

Information from: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel,

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