(This piece was originally published on May 27, 2017 in the Tribune Star.)

Vigilant care for the environment begins to matter most when it hits home.

When people suddenly wonder whether the water they drink or the air they breathe could harm their health, the term “environmental responsibility” sounds proper and downright crucial. Their lives, and their kids’ lives, could be altered.

Those folks need to know some entity is making their safety an unconditional priority, not influenced by politics or money.

A plan to contain 9.1 million tons of coal ash at a retired power plant on the banks of the Wabash River concerns some Vigo County residents who live near the site. Duke Energy closed its Wabash River Generating Station in 2016 after 63 years of operation as a result of federal regulations and challenges by environmental advocacy groups. Five remaining ponds there holding coal ash, the residue left by the burning process. The ash contains toxins that can be harmful at certain levels of concentration.

The utility company has submitted to the Indiana Department of Environmental Management its plan to contain the coal ash. Duke intends to consolidate the five ash ponds into three. The basins will be capped with a geosynthetic liner with drainage features to push away water. The plan calls for Duke to monitor groundwater for 30 years, conducting samples at least twice annually.

Concerns remain, though. Only one of those three final ponds at the plant site features a liner. The bottom of the North Pond sits 10 feet below groundwater levels, according to the nonprofit watchdog Hoosier Environmental Council. And, a 2016 monitoring survey detected groundwater contamination, the council’s health and water policy director, Indra Frank, told local citizens in a meeting Thursday.

Flooding also poses worries, though Duke’s plan is built to withstand a 100-year flood. “Our climate is changing. We’ve had 500- and 1,000-year floods occur with regularity in the United States and world in the past 10 years,” said Lorrie Heber, director of the White Violet Center for Eco-Justice at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. The potential for flood waters to disperse coal ash contaminants into the Wabash and groundwater troubles the environmentalists.

On the plus side, Duke has served the Terre Haute community well for decades, keeping homes lit and warmed through all kinds of weather, as well as providing jobs to its employees and contributing manpower and funds to local causes. Duke’s good-neighbor track record, as the corporation involved in the situation, adds a measure of confidence for residents.

Still, those residents should also be able to count on their state for a track record of aggressively protecting its citizens from environmental hazards. Instead, Indiana’s governmental leadership, especially former Gov. Mike Pence, waged an unwavering battle against the federal EPA and any attempts to enact clean air and water standards that corporations oppose. Pence, of course, is now vice president under Donald Trump, who wants to cut the EPA’s budget by 31 percent and its workforce by 20 percent. State environmental agencies will feel the impact. IDEM, for example, receives 15 percent of its funding from the federal government, the Indianapolis Star reported this month.

IDEM seemingly should have its hands full. Indiana has more coal ash ponds then any other state, with 78. Why? The state’s coal ash protections are among the nation’s weakest, according to a 2014 report by the environmentalist Sierra Club.

Along with the containment work by Duke and the oversight by groups such as the Hoosier Environmental Council, the valley’s local, state and federal elected officials should be actively involved in assuring the safety of the public, wildlife and natural resources. The community deserves to be confident of a healthy environment, now and in the future.


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