Report: Coal Waste Pollutes Water in KY, Other States

Report: Coal Waste Pollutes Water in KY, Other States

VA Kingston Fossil Plant in Tennessee, site of a 1.1 billion gallon coal ash sludge spill in 2008, photographed March 28, 2012.

VA Kingston Fossil Plant in Tennessee, site of a 1.1 billion gallon coal ash sludge spill in 2008, photographed March 28, 2012.

Appalachian Voices, CC BY

Years after the federal government ordered the cleanup, contaminants such as arsenic and mercury continue to seep into groundwater from waste storage sites at current and former coal-fired power plants in Kentucky and other states, two groups charged. environmentalists.

Kentucky has 15 sites where contaminants from coal ash ponds or landfills are contaminating groundwater, according to the report published on Thursday by the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) and Earthjustice.

That’s the third-most in the country, behind Indiana and Illinois at 16 each, according to the report.

The highest level of contamination seen at a Kentucky site was at the Ghent Generating Station, a coal-fired power plant near the Ohio River in Carroll County, according to the report.

Lithium, which can cause kidney, thyroid and neurological damage, was found in groundwater monitoring stations at 145 times the safe level, according to the report.

Monitoring wells also showed lead and arsenic at elevated levels, according to the report.

“Coal plant owners are ignoring the law and avoiding the cleanup because they don’t want to pay for it,” Lisa Evans, a senior attorney for Earthjustice, said in a press release. “Coal ash waste is causing widespread water pollution that threatens drinking water supplies and the environment.”

None of the utilities that control contaminated sites in Kentucky have released a plan to treat groundwater as part of the cleanup process for the sites, the environmental groups said.

The US Environmental Protection Agency adopted the rules in question in 2015 after large coal ash spills, even in Tennesseeand reports of water contamination from leaks in ash ponds and landfills.

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Aerial photo of a coal ash pond, left, at Kentucky Utilities’ EW Brown power generating station in Burgin from 2009. Charles Bertram cbertram@herald-leader.com

Coal ash is the waste left over from burning coal to generate electricity. It contains heavy metals and other contaminants that can cause cancer and health problems at high enough levels.

The 2015 law was intended to stop utilities from disposing of coal ash in leaking ponds; close ash ponds and landfills safely; monitor groundwater contamination; clean sites; and restore groundwater quality at the sites, according to the EIP and Earthjustice report.

The groups used information submitted by the utilities to analyze compliance seven years later. The report issued on Thursday follow one from 2019.

Most utilities have stopped sending coal ash to unlined ponds, which is a success of the law, according to the report.

However, the groups said compliance was otherwise poor, with continued unsafe levels of groundwater contamination in 91% of ash dumps at 292 coal-fired plants and plans long overdue. to clean up contaminated groundwater.

Only 4% of plants have submitted a cleanup plan that includes groundwater treatment, and many plant owners have denied that their sites are responsible for contaminants, according to the report.

Many utilities have claimed that sources other than ash ponds and landfills are the cause of the pollution seen at sites (a sham, environmental groups argued), and often claim that they will take care of contamination through a process called monitored natural attenuation.

All it means is that the utility only plans to monitor pollution without cleaning up, according to the report.

“In other words, companies just watch the contamination escape from the units and move away. This is not really a remedy,” the report says.

Coal ash rules do not apply to all ash storage sites, a dangerous loophole that must be closed, the report said.

When applied, the report denounces that coal plant owners have tried to cover up contamination by placing monitoring wells in the wrong places, leaving areas unmonitored, and using inappropriate statistical methods.

The report said plans to close coal ash sites at several plants would leave ash in contact with or near groundwater, which is inappropriate.

The report argues that it is imperative to do a better job of enforcing the coal ash rule to deal with pollution sources because once contaminants leach into groundwater, they are harder to clean up.

“We know that the groundwater contamination at these coal plants will get worse if nothing is done to control the source of the contamination,” said Abel Russ, lead attorney for the Environmental Integrity Project. “We have an opportunity to clean up these sites before they create a much bigger problem. If the industry just played by the rules, we could make significant progress.”

The report included information about metals and chemicals found at groundwater monitoring stations at 15 Kentucky sites, but did not include specific allegations about problems with monitoring or cleanup plans at all of them.

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KU’s plant in Ghent will see approximately $712 million in improvements as part of an approved deal for environmental projects. Photo courtesy of Kentucky Public Services

At two, the Ghent Station and the Trimble County Generating Station, owned by LG&E and Kentucky Utilities, the report cites a number of deficiencies.

In Ghent, there are “numerous violations” of the coal ash rule, according to the report, including large loopholes in the monitoring system, reliance on an inconclusive claim over an alternative source of pollution, and a lack of a comprehensive remedy. in the place. .

The plan also includes the closure of an ash facility that is in contact with groundwater, meaning “contaminants are expected to persist in the aquifer,” according to the report.

At Trimble, the company did not thoroughly investigate potential coal ash contamination, and a plan to leave the ash in contact with groundwater “will allow (contaminants) to impact the aquifer for generations,” the report alleges.

In a response, spokesman Daniel Lowry said that LG&E and KU disagree with the report’s findings; that it appeared to inappropriately use invalid data for the Ghent station; and that he fails to acknowledge progress with the company’s ongoing compliance plans.

The company is fully compliant with the coal ash rule and has designed plans to close ash storage facilities that exceed regulations, Lowry said.

“We manage our business, not only to comply with stricter regulations, but to ensure that we are conscious of the environment and, in this case, that our operations are not negatively affecting the quality of water for drinking or recreational activities,” he said. Lowry.

The Kentucky sites listed in the report were the Ghent, Trimble, Mill Creek, EW Brown and Cane Run generating stations owned by LG&E and KU; Sebree and DB Wilson, owned by Big Rivers; the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Paradise and Shawnee plants; Big Sandy, owned by Kentucky Power; the JK Smith, John Sherman Cooper and HL Spurlock plants owned by East Kentucky Power Cooperative; Elmer Smith Station, owned by Owensboro Municipal Utilities; and East Bend, a Duke Energy site in northern Kentucky.

Power plants at some of the sites have been shut down. The ash sites listed in the report have been closed or are scheduled to be closed.

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The Tennessee Valley Authority closed the last unit at its Paradise coal-fired power plant in Muhlenberg County in February 2020. Bill Estep best step@herald-leader.com

Scott Brooks, a spokesman for the Tennessee Valley Authority, said the TVA is working with regulators and will close the coal ash sites in an environmentally safe manner.

The giant utility company implemented best practices in handling coal ash before the 2015 federal rule, Brooks said.

TVA has a network of over 450 groundwater monitoring wells that “ensures the protection of water resources and the environment,” and if monitoring shows a need for corrections, the utility follows the process outlined in the guidelines. federal and state laws, Brooks said.

East Kentucky Power Cooperative is compliant with the coal ash rule and all of its units containing coal ash are compliant with the federal Clean Water Act, spokesman Nick Comer said in a statement.

“EKPC works hard every day to provide reliable and affordable electricity in the safest way possible while minimizing the impact on the environment,” said Comer.

Cynthia Wiseman, a Kentucky Power spokeswoman, said all coal ash was removed from an ash pond at the Big Sandy site and another site was dried and covered with a material to prevent groundwater from entering the remaining ash. .

Testing did not identify any groundwater impacts as a result of either site, Wiseman said.

Monitoring showed excessive levels of some contaminants, including lithium and radium, but a contractor found they were the result of groundwater contacting a coal seam, not the ash pond, Wiseman said.

A Duke Energy spokeswoman, Sally Thelen, said the locations where contaminants from the ash dumps exceeded groundwater protection levels were within the plant’s property in East Bend. The network of monitoring wells “demonstrates that drinking water supplies remain safe,” she said.

No responses were available from other utilities.

This story was originally published November 3, 2022 3:42 PM.

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