An environmental group is concerned about groundwater contamination near 15 sites around Indiana where coal ash is stored.
But Duke Energy, which has ash ponds at its former Wabash River generating station near Terre Haute and its Cayuga power plant, says its closure plans for the sites will in fact improve groundwater quality.
The discussion comes as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers changes to an Obama Administration rule that environmentalists say will put people living near the sites at greater risk.
Citing data from the utility, the Hoosier Environmental Council said groundwater near Duke’s Terre Haute and Cayuga sites exceeds drinking water or health advisory standards for six substances.
Boron, molybdenum, arsenic and lead are concerns at both sites, while the list includes cobalt and lithium at Terre Haute and sulfate and antimony at Cayuga.
“The groundwater there has been rendered unfit for human consumption,” said Indra Frank, the council’s environmental health. “Portions of the coal ash at the [Terre Haute] site are actually sitting in the groundwater so that contamination will go on indefinitely unless the ash is removed.”
But the sampling did not come from drinking water, noted Duke spokeswoman Angeline Protegere. Instead, it is from locations immediately next to an ash basin or landfill.
[The data does] not reflect groundwater conditions farther away or off plant property where neighbors are located,” she said.
Of the substances cited, only arsenic has an EPA drinking water standard, she noted.
“While arsenic may be above this standard at Wabash River Station [at Terre Haute], groundwater in Indiana often has naturally occurring arson above 10 parts per million),” she said.
As part of an agreement with private groups, Duke examined areas farther from its sites and has not identified any wells within one-half mile of its Terre Haute or Cayuga facilities that are used for human consumption, Protegere said.
A number of years ago, the utility voluntarily tested groundwater near the Cayuga facility, she said. While levels did not exceed state or federal standards, elevations of boron were found, she said.
“Out of an abundance of caution, we brought in municipal water for residents near the plant,” Protegere said. “We submitted ash basin closure plans to state environmental regulators for ash basins there in 2011, long before the federal coal ash rule was enacted in 2015.”
The Indiana Department of Environmental Management is still reviewing Duke’s plans for closing all of its facilities subject to the federal coal combustion regulation, Brady Hagerty, the agency’s digital media manager, said Wednesday.
The plan for the Terre Haute site would consolidate 9 million tons of ash from five ponds into three. However, only one pond would have a liner, critics have noted.
Still, the utility’s closure plan “will help protect and improve groundwater quality,” Protegere said. “This work is well underway – we’ve closed some basins, we’re converting to dry ash handling and we’re installing new wastewater treatment systems. De-watering and closing ash basins will improve groundwater quality and that’s exactly what we’re working to do.”
At Hoosier Energy’s Merom Generating Station in Sullivan County, groundwater testing shows only lead exceeds federal standards.
That site does not use ash ponds and its coal combustion products “are beneficially reused or disposed of in the plan’s state-permitted landfill,” said Claire Gregory, communications manager.
Proposed EPA rules change
Accounts of a public hearing last week in Washington concerning changes to federal coal combustion rules said most of those who spoke called for the rules to remain as they are or be strengthened to better protect the environment, public health and property rights.
Frank was among those who testified out of concern the proposed changes are part of Trump Administration plans to weaken environmental rules.
The new rules would, among other things, allow the calculation of alternative protection standards by states or utilities, she said.
“Those chemicals aren’t different in toxicity from one location to another,” Frank said. “We already have carefully calculated health standards. I would feel much better if we stuck with the nationwide standards.”
The EPA also proposes to eliminate a requirement to close an ash pond if it fails certain safety standards or is in a dangerous location such as a flood plain, a wetland or a seismic zone. Duke’s Terre Haute ash ponds are in a 100-year flood plain, Frank noted.
Another change would permit different treatment of groundwater contamination if there are no “potential receptors.”
In other words, said Frank, “if there is no one currently drinking from that acquifer. That would weaken or eliminate requirements for cleanup, essentially writing off some of our groundwater.”
Additional changes would:
- Suspend groundwater monitoring under limited circumstances
- Allow coal ash to be used as grading material for landfills
- Decrease the time a utility must monitor and maintain a coal ash landfill
- Let states forego use of professional engineers to issue certifications.
Monday was the deadline for public comments concerning the proposed changes. Frank requested additional time for public comment but was denied. She is concerned there was just one public hearing, and it was held in the nation’s capital.
“When the 2015 rules were drafted, the process took several years and required extensive scientific and public input and public hearings around the country,” she said. “The EPA is pushing this rule forward at a rapid clip with a minimum of input.”