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Kentucky coal ash is contaminating groundwater, but companies argue they're in compliance

Coal ash leaching off the Green Station Landfill in December 2018.
Energy and Environment Cabinet
Energy and Environment Cabinet
Coal ash leaching off the Green Station Landfill in December 2018.

At least a half-dozen power plants in Kentucky have long-term plans to store toxic coal ash in unlined storage ponds sitting in or near groundwater, threatening water supplies and potentially violating federal regulations.

After burning coal to produce electricity, utilities store the resulting ash in massive landfills and ponds that often leak hazardous levels of pollution into the environment, often in disproportionately low-income communities and communities of color.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency denied a deadline extension for an Ohio utility that wanted to continue dumping coal ash into a pond with waste sitting in groundwater. Although the Nov. 18 announcement only applied to the Ohio plan, EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan said the EPA expects other utilities to follow suit.

“Today’s action reaffirms that surface impoundments or landfills cannot be closed with coal ash in contact with groundwater, ensuring safe water resources for these communities while protecting public health and ensuring a reliable supply of electricity,” Regan said in a press release.

But five Kentucky utilities that spoke with WFPL News disagree. Louisville Gas and Electric, Kentucky Utilities, Big Rivers Electric Co., Kentucky Power and Tennessee Valley Authority all say they are complying with federal regulations, despite having ash storage sites sitting in or near groundwater.

“EPA’s interpretations of the rule have changed from time-to-time and some of those interpretations are currently subject to legal challenge,” Chis Whelan, vice president of communications and corporate responsibility wrote in an email. “The determination you have referenced relates to one particular facility and is based on the specific facts of that case.”

At least 15 coal-fired power plants in Kentucky have polluted groundwater with arsenic, lead, mercury and other hazardous metals found in coal ash, according to an analysis of industry data from environmental advocates Earthjustice and the Environmental Integrity Project.

Much of the environmental focus on coal power plants relates to climate change and air pollution, but coal ash remains one of the largest industrial waste streams in the country. At least 91% of U.S. coal plants have coal ash landfills and ponds that are leaching harmful levels of pollution into groundwater, according to the Environmental Integrity Project.

“The Kentucky plants have all the same problems as the plants throughout the rest of the country, but the situation is worse in Kentucky because of the number of very large plants and the amount of coal ash that’s generated,” said Lisa Evans, a senior attorney for the environmental group Earthjustice.

Evans said six Kentucky power plants are violating coal ash rules that require power plants to close storage sites and remove ash when it’s within five feet of groundwater. None of these sites have liners that could help limit groundwater pollution and all of the plants are nearby disproportionately low income communities or communities of color, according to the industry analysis.

In nearly every case, utilities have told regulators they plan to leave the ash in place, meaning they'll remove the existing water and install covers that prevent water from infiltrating the storage site. But environmental advocates, including Evans, say capping the storage site while leaving the ash in place in or near groundwater could make the contamination even worse.

“Once you put the cap on it, that groundwater is going to sit in a more concentrated solution because it won’t be diluted by any percolation from above,” she said.

Louisville Gas and Electric and Kentucky Utilities

Power plants around the country began monitoring for coal ash pollution under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s 2015 coal ash rules. Former President Donald Trump’s administration weakened those rules in 2020, allowing utilities to delay deadlines for cleanup and closure.

The Earthjustice and Environmental Integrity Project report listed two Kentucky power plants as having among the worst contamination in the U.S.

Kentucky Utilities’ Ghent Generating Station and Louisville Gas & Electric’s Trimble County Generating Station have both demonstrated significant levels of pollution with coal ash storage sites in contact with, or near, groundwater.

Whelan, with Louisville Gas and Electric and Kentucky Utilities, did not deny that coal ash has polluted groundwater but said the utility has not violated EPA coal ash rules.

“When corrective measures are triggered, that does not mean that a company has violated the rule,” Whelan said. “We manage our business, not to just meet stricter regulations, but to ensure that we are being mindful of the environment, and, in this case, that our operations are not negatively impacting water quality for drinking or recreational activities.”

Whelan said LG&E and KU have stopped storing additional coal ash into their ash storage ponds and expect to fully close all wet storage sites by 2024.

Tennessee Valley Authority - Paradise Fossil Plant

The Tennessee Valley Authority retired the final coal-fired generating unit at the Paradise Fossil Plant in 2020. Last month, they imploded three cooling towers at the former coal plant in Muhlenberg County.

Coal ash compliance data from Earthjustice and EIP show TVA plans to close five ash ponds sitting in or near groundwater. The utility plans to leave the coal ash in place at three of the storage sites that are leaking arsenic and boron into the environment.

TVA Spokesperson Jim Hopson said the utility’s plans to leave the ash in place at the retired Paradise Fossil Plant are just as protective of the environment as ash removal.

“While EPA Administrator Michael Regan suggests in the press release you provided ‘that surface impoundments or landfills cannot be closed with coal ash in contact with groundwater,’ this is not what the electric utility industry has understood the CCR rule to mean,” Hopson wrote in an email.

Big Rivers Electric Co. - Sebree Generating Station

Big Rivers Electric Co. has two coal ash ponds it plans to close in place at Sebree Generating Station near Henderson. Both sit in or near groundwater. The company’s own monitoring has demonstrated mercury from the ash contaminating groundwater at 135 times federal standards.

Spokesperson Jennifer Keach did not respond to questions and instead replied with a statement.

“Our activities to close the pond will be in full compliance with all state and federal regulations,” she wrote.

Kentucky Power - Big Sandy

The Big Sandy coal plant near Louisa in eastern Kentucky has a coal ash storage site the utility closed with the ash in place despite being in or near groundwater. The contamination at the site includes levels of lithium, radium, boron and other pollutants above federal standards.

Spokesperson Cynthia Wiseman said the utility removed water from the storage site and capped it with a special material designed to prevent water infiltration.

“The bottom ash pond closure was completed in February 2020 and the fly ash was completed in November 2021. To date we have not identified any groundwater impacts that have been attributed to either of the sites,” Wiseman said.

Repairing the Damage

Earthjustice and EIP say there are further steps the government can take to address coal ash pollution. Their report calls on the EPA to increase federal oversight, test drinking water near ash sites, enforce cleanup schedules and ensure that utilities are following the federal coal ash rules.

There are also a number of loopholes the EPA could close that currently allow utilities to avoid cleanup. For example, several coal plants around the country were able to avoid cleaning up contamination because they demonstrated the pollution was actually caused by a different coal ash storage site not covered under the 2015 rules.

Eric Dixon, a senior researcher at the nonprofit Ohio River Valley Institute, said renewable energy is pushing the country in a new, healthier direction, but utilities need to repair the damage that remains from fossil fuels.

“There’s a lot of coal ash across the state, there’s a lot of coal ash that is contaminating the water beneath our feet, and that water could now or in the future make its way into the water we drink or the water we swim or fish in,” Dixon said.

Dixon said the cleanup could also benefit local economies if utilities employ local companies.

“There is an opportunity to create jobs cleaning up the damage from the past at these coal ash plants,” he said.

Ryan Van Velzer is the Kentucky Public Radio Managing Editor. Email Ryan at rvanvelzer@lpm.org.

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