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Not in My Lifetime: The Fight for Clean Water in Town of Pines, Indiana

April 1, 2004

This is the story of the Town of Pines, Indiana, an ordinary American town where hard-working people live and raise their families. In recent years however, the residents have discovered that their drinking water has been contaminated by coal combustion waste generated at a nearby coal-fired power plant. For at least the past 19 years the Northern Indiana Public Service Corporation (NIPSCO) has disposed of its coal combustion waste at a nearby landfill, in contact with the shallow aquifer that provides the drinking water for Town of Pines. The coal combustion waste has also been used to build roads and fill low-lying areas throughout the town. These wastes contain a variety of metals, including aluminum, antimony, arsenic, barium, beryllium, boron, cadmium, chromium, copper, lead, manganese, mercury, molybdenum, nickel, selenium, strontium, thallium, vanadium, and zinc.

Official records show that the landfill was known to have the potential to cause groundwater and surface water pollution and that this contamination would pose a danger to nearby residential well users. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR . an organization within the Centers for Disease Control) reviewed the drinking water data for Town of Pines and issued the following statement. “The groundwater in Town of Pines poses a significant threat to children’s health because they could be, or currently are being exposed to potentially high levels of metals in residential drinking water”.

As a last recourse, the residents of Town of Pines have resorted to legal action. The Hoosier Environmental Council, an Indiana environmental organization that has been active on power plant waste issues for over a decade, and citizen activists have brought a citizen suit against NIPSCO under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. The purpose of the suit is to obtain comprehensive testing of the town’s water and provision of municipal water to all affected households. In addition, about 90 residents in Town of Pines have come together to file a multi-party civil lawsuit against NIPSCO and Brown, Inc. (owners of the coal combustion waste landfill). They hope for compensation for property damage and personal injury resulting from decades of groundwater contamination.

The story of Town of Pines teaches us the lesson of failed environmental policies at both the state and federal level. It is a story of a community of citizens, deeply harmed, whose public officials offered only indifference, arrogance and ignorance, but who did not passively accept their fate. It is a story meant to inspire action, not just in Town of Pines, but nationally, to ensure responsible and environmentally safe disposal practices, particularly for toxic coal combustion wastes.