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PFAS contamination complicates redevelopment at former Grand Haven coal plant

GRAND HAVEN — Groundwater contamination around a site where the city’s municipal utility wants to develop a new natural gas-fired power plant will require clean up before the project can proceed.

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Eight of 10 groundwater monitoring wells installed on Harbor Island, where the former coal-fired J.B. Sims Generating Station was imploded earlier this year, tested positive for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) at levels above state standards, according to the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE).

EGLE is actively investigating the contamination, which was detected this summer, mostly around coal ash storage ponds.

“We found PFAS at the site, and it’s above criteria,” EGLE Geologist Kent Walters said last week during a virtual town hall meeting hosted by the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team. “Anything that’s above environmental criteria will need to be addressed in some way.”

Testing also found PFAS levels below state standards in the Grand River just offshore from the former coal plant on Harbor Island.

The Grand Haven Board of Light and Power’s plan for the new power plant and office building includes $5.25 million for environmental site remediation. The plan, approved by the utility’s elected board of trustees, notes that a “remaining $12.5 million that may be necessary will be covered by cash reserves.”

The state in June approved the utility’s action plan to install 22 monitoring sites to determine the extent and potential spread of the PFAS contamination across Harbor Island. Part of the island just north of downtown Grand Haven was used as a city dump generations ago.

The additional monitoring wells “will be taking a look at the island as a whole” and “will let us know what the island looks like and (give the state) a better picture of the island,” Walters said.

“We don’t have a lot of information on the spread at the site,” he added.

State officials want to get a holistic view of the contamination for an eventual broader remediation plan for the entire island. Other contaminants that have been detected on Harbor Island include heavy metals, boron, lithium, arsenic, cyanide and chloride, according to the state.

“While the city is disappointed to learn of the detection of PFAS compounds under Harbor Island, it is not entirely surprising, considering the historical uses of the site,” City Manager Pat McGinnis said in a June statement after testing revealed PFAS and other chemicals at the former coal plant site.

PFAS are a group of chemical compounds first produced in the 1940s that are used in a variety of ways, including food packaging, carpeting, firefighting foam, outdoor apparel and non-stick cookware. The chemicals have been associated with low birth weights, effects on the immune system, reduced fertility and high blood pressure in pregnant women, liver damage, thyroid disruption, kidney and testicular damage, and decreased immunity.

The Harbor Island site is among dozens in Michigan with PFAS contamination. 

The state is “very aggressively looking for PFAS and conducting many investigations,” said Heidi Hollenback, division supervisor in the Grand Rapids area for EGLE’s Air Quality Division. “We are now sampling rivers, lakes and fish for PFAS so we can identify where PFAS is located and help us eliminate PFAS sources.”

Meanwhile, the Biden administration and a bipartisan group of lawmakers last week announced a $550 billion infrastructure deal that includes $55 billion in clean water initiatives to address lead pipes and PFAS contamination.

Residents seek development pause

The Board of Light Power has proposed developing a new gas-fired power plant and an administrative office building on Harbor Island. The Grand Haven City Council will soon decide whether to approve a $50 million, 20-year bond issue to finance the project and the J.B. Sims demolition and site remediation costs.

A group of local business leaders have called on the city to delay a decision on the bonds so a third party can review the project. A group of residents that formed the Grand Haven Energy Organization also has urged the City Council to delay a decision on selling bonds.

“We urge the city council to delay their decision on the bond issue and prioritize the safety and wellbeing of our community and our natural resources over interests in building a new plant,” said Field Reichardt, a Grand Haven resident and a volunteer for Grand Haven Energy Organization. “The Grand Haven Energy Organization stands strong with our demand for an independent third-party evaluation of the proposal ahead of the city council vote.”

The Board of Light and Power would also need to secure a series of state permits to proceed with the project.

A public comment period begins on Aug. 11 and runs through Sept. 27 for a permit request the Board of Light and Power submitted to EGLE’s Air Quality Division in March. The department will hold a virtual public hearing on the permit request on Sept. 15 and has until November to decide on the application.

Even if the power plant proposal does not proceed, the Board of Light and Power may remain responsible for addressing the contamination at the site, if the state’s ongoing investigation determines it is the responsible party, Walters said.

“Regardless of what is done on the island, there’s responsibility for contamination on the site,” he said.

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