The northern Indiana utility NIPSCO will postpone removing toxic coal ash from ponds near its Michigan City coal plant until next spring. Environmental activists agree with the delay, saying due to the pandemic, it’s not the right time to remove the waste.
People who live in areas with more air pollution — like near coal plants — are more likely to have the underlying health conditions that put them at a greater risk from COVID-19.
Members of the LaPorte County branch of the NAACP and the group Just Transition NWI worry digging up the coal ash could kick up more pollution into the air.
La'Tonya Troutman is the environmental climate justice chair with the LaPorte County branch of the NAACP. She said more particulate pollution from coal ash could further risk the health of African American communities in northwest Indiana.
“This is something that will heighten the chances of getting a severe case of COVID-19 or even dying from COVID-19," Troutman said.
Nick Meyer is NIPSCO’s vice president of communications and external affairs. He said the utility often transports coal ash and doing so during the pandemic would not impact COVID-19 cases. But Meyer said the delay will allow the utility to prioritize important gas and electric infrastructure projects in the state.
“So we felt like we could focus our attention to getting some of those projects off the ground. Starting in spring of next year still allows us to stay well ahead of the schedule,” he said.
NIPSCO has until 2023 to close its Michigan City coal ash ponds. It's part of the company's plan to close all of its coal-fired power plants by 2028.
Activists said they hope the company will also consider putting in stronger safety measures to protect residents during the removal and transport of the waste — as well as continue to monitor any remaining contaminants at the site.
Just Transition NWI and the NAACP detailed those safety measures in their petition to NIPSCO.
Indiana Environmental reporting is supported by the Environmental Resilience Institute, an Indiana University Grand Challenge project developing Indiana-specific projections and informed responses to problems of environmental change.