(This piece was originally published on September 17, 2018 by the Northwest Indiana Times.)

A few of the 42 private wells tested recently near NIPSCO’s R.M. Schahfer Generating Station contained elevated levels of manganese, iron and sodium, but none of the results so far indicate any contamination from the utility company’s coal ash ponds, an expert said.

The testing, conducted by the Indiana State Department of Health and Jasper County Health Department, found elevated levels of manganese, iron and sodium in a limited number of wells, said Indra Frank, environmental health and water policy director at Hoosier Environmental Council.

Frank reviewed the data, which The Times obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Coal ash, the material left behind after coal is burned to produce energy, was not a regulated waste until 2015. In the past, NIPSCO followed an industrywide practice of dumping coal ash that could not be reused into unlined retention ponds. Over time, contaminants in coal ash can seep into groundwater.

The agencies tested the wells at the request of residents, who acted on Hoosier Environmental Council’s recommendation earlier this year that residents living within a mile of the Schahfer plant have their private wells tested for heavy metals, radium and sodium because of contamination found in groundwater at the facility.

The environmental nonprofit made the recommendation after reviewing groundwater data NIPSCO was required to release earlier this year under a 2015 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rule.

Coal ash can put manganese, iron and sodium into groundwater, but the groundwater at the Schahfer plant was not tested for those contaminants, Frank said.

“However, since these minerals in the private wells were not accompanied by boron, lithium, molybdenum, or sulfate, they are not likely to be coming from the coal ash,” Frank said.

Boron and sulfate are most likely to show up first when coal ash contaminates groundwater, she said.

“All of the boron and sulfate concentrations in the well test results that I reviewed are consistent with what we see in uncontaminated Indiana groundwater,” Frank said.

Monitoring wells near the coal ash disposal sites on the Schahfer property showed contamination with arsenic, boron, lithium, molybdenum, radium and sulfate exceeding health-based standards for drinking water.

“The concentrations of arsenic, lithium and molybdenum in the private wells are also consistent with uncontaminated Indiana groundwater. They are the amounts we expect to be in the water from the local geology,” Frank said.

The sampling results are reassuring, Frank said. But she still recommends anyone living within a mile of the Schahfer property in Wheatfield who has not had their well tested do so.

“We know that the groundwater on the Schahfer property is contaminated, and it can be difficult to know exactly where those contaminants will move,” she said. “Groundwater does not hold still.”

NIPSCO plans to clean up coal ash ponds

NIPSCO has said there is no indication at this time that any contaminated groundwater has moved off-site, and no nearby public water systems are showing any signs of impact.

“We take public and environmental safety and protection very seriously,” NIPSCO spokesman Nick Meyer said. “Based on these results, the state and county health departments have not instructed NIPSCO to take any immediate action.”

Data collected near the property’s fence line show groundwater there meets protection standards, he said.

The company plans to continue working, under the direction of the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, to review and approve plans to address on-site groundwater contamination by closing its coal ash impoundments and remediating the property, he said.

IDEM said its Office of Land Quality is reviewing coal ash pond closure plans statewide. Public meetings have been held for each closure plan, IDEM said.

The Sierra Club’s Indiana Beyond Coal Campaign, which recently held a community conversation in which well testing results were discussed, said NIPSCO “has an obligation to ensure not a single well goes untested within Wheatfield and to pay for all cleanup posed by their pollution.”

Residents who attended the community conversation “feel that NIPSCO’s plant is putting their health and the health of their loved ones in jeopardy,” said Ashley Williams, the campaign’s organizer.

In addition to on-site groundwater contamination, the Schahfer plant is “one of the worst plants in the country in terms of greenhouse gas and toxic emissions.”

“NIPSCO needs to safely decommission and clean up their coal ash ponds and look to the future by phasing out all of their Schahfer plant and investing in renewable energy,” Williams said.

NIPSCO recently retired its coal-fired units at the Bailly Generating Station in Burns Harbor and plans to retire two units at Schahfer by the end of 2023.

More testing of private wells planned this fall

The State Department of Health said it plans to assist the Jasper County Health Department with testing more well water in early October for residents who didn’t get wells tested during the first round of sampling. The agencies also will retest previously tested wells with elevated levels to qualify the results.

All test results will be shared with IDEM and NIPSCO, a spokeswoman for the State Department of Health said.

The results show wells at two homes tested above the state screening level for manganese.

Manganese is a naturally occurring element, and detection in groundwater is common, the State Department of Health said. It’s an essential nutrient, and consuming a small amount of it each day is important to stay healthy.

However, high levels of manganese can cause problems to the nervous system, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

The state screening level for manganese is 430 micrograms per liter. However, the EPA’s secondary standard for manganese in drinking water provided by public drinking systems is 0.05 micrograms per liter.

In every well, several of the 30 contaminants for which officials tested were detected above the EPA’s standard but below IDEM’s screening level for groundwater at the tap, records show.

In a guidance document sent to homeowners, the Jasper County Board of Health noted EPA maximum contamination levels apply only to public water systems. Well water standards for personal consumption are unregulated in Indiana.

“Private well owners can use the EPA’s maximum contamination levels as guidelines to evaluate the quality of their water,” the document said.

Frank commended the Jasper County and state health departments for conducting the testing.

“Testing private wells is generally the responsibility of the well owner, so the county and state health departments went above and beyond their regular duties in this case,” she said.

Homeowners now can take steps to protect their health by purchasing filtration systems certified to remove any contaminants indicated in their test results, she said.

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