Arch Investigates: Increased Mercury Dump in Lake Michigan

March 12, 2019 6:15 pm
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While solar is our priority, at Arch Electric the environment is our passion. It is not enough for us to work in an industry that offsets harmful pollution, we want to advocate for healthier standards across the board. When we heard of the large amount of Mercury being dumped into Lake Michigan we couldn’t help but ask more questions. Sabrina Lartz, our Customer Experience Specialist, has a background in matters regarding wetlands and waters in the US. She decided to take the issue head on. Below is her summary and your call to action:

The WE Energies plant in Oak Creek came under fire once again, for dumping increased amounts of mercury (a by-product of burning coal to generate electricity) into Lake Michigan. The volume of mercury, a toxic heavy metal, being released by WE Energies has climbed over the last decade and the company doesn’t know why.  Mercury is so toxic the state law limits the amount allowed to be released into the water to 1.3 parts per trillion (or one part of mercury to a trillion parts of water), however, WE Energies has requested releasing 4.1 parts per trillion on any given day!  The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) agreed to allow WE Energies to dump the wastewater into Lake Michigan at these elevated levels.  As an ecologist, and former environmental consultant, I used my knowledge of environmental resource permitting to better understand this….how are they able to continue dumping excessive amounts of mercury into our waters?!?!

Lake Michigan is a Federally regulated water, a water of the U.S., and based on my past experiences with permitting impacts to wetlands and waters of the U.S. I know you need authorization from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE) to discharge into a jurisdictional water…which Lake Michigan is!!  Still, I wanted to know what the WDNR had to say for themselves, so I called their office in Milwaukee, WI and was transferred to one of their water quality professionals, who referred me to another WDNR water professional based at the Madison office, who referred me to his supervisor.  Now by this time, I was starting to get the feeling nobody wanted to talk about the dumping into our great lake, but I wasn’t giving up!  I called the supervisor and was informed she “deals with air quality issues only and doesn’t know much about water quality” but I provided her my email and she said she’d email me an answer to my questions. I never received an email.

If the WDNR didn’t want to follow-up, I decided to contact the ACOE instead and low and behold I received a phone call the very next day!  The woman was a project supervisor and I explained to her I know the state has regulations as to the amount of mercury allowed to be discharged into Lake Michigan, so the Federal government must too! The woman stated that indeed Lake Michigan is a water of the U.S. and therefore subject to Federal regulations, however-you just knew that was coming-the ACOE regulates the dumping and discharge of dredge and fill material only, not toxic chemicals.  I was shocked to hear this!  So, if I want to pour a bucket of clean sand (fill material) into Lake Michigan I need authorization to do it, BUT wastewater loaded with heavy metals was not a priority for the ACOE?  Reluctantly, the woman stated that was correct, because it didn’t fall under their scope of regulation.  I told her I thought it was the most backwards regulating I ever heard of and, to thicken the plot, I asked “so how are Federal regulations regarding water quality even enforced?”  She said it’s up to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to set the limits on acceptable amounts of contaminants in waters of the U.S. and the EPA mandates-wait for it-that those limits be enforced by the individual state (so the WDNR in our case).  The ACOE woman thanked me and emailed me the information for the WDNR contact regarding the WE Energies dumping in Lake Michigan.

Take away items-anytime an activity is taking place that could cause harm directly or indirectly to our environment it must be posted, whether it falls under Federal jurisdiction or not, the public must be given what’s referred to as “Public Notice”.  Now, this Public Notice can take many forms, sometimes it’s published on the internet by a news source or they post in the newspaper.  The Public Comment period only lasts 30 days, and it’s provided so our community can voice their opinions to the permitting agencies (WDNR) as well as the applicant (WE Energies).  I am providing the contact information for the WDNR staff who will take public comments regarding the WE Energies dumping into Lake Michigan.  The comment period for this issue ended on February 14, however, you can still act, so please take the opportunity to make your voice heard.


Jason Knutson

Wastewater Section Chief, Department of Natural Resources

101 S. Webster St. PO Box 7921, Madison, WI, 53707


Photo Credit:  Mike De Sisti, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

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