(This piece was originally published on September 20, 2017 in the Courier-Journal.)

The fear is that toxic heavy metals could harm people, waterways and the environment

Duke Energy has been keeping the public in the dark about the flooding threats from massive coal-ash ponds at its power plants, including those in Indiana and Kentucky, environmental groups charged on Wednesday.

Taking the first step in a federal lawsuit, Earthjustice, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, Hoosier Environmental Council and other groups sent notices to Duke Energy asserting that it had violated federal coal-ash safety rules and that the company was threatening lives and the environment.

“Communities near these coal dumps have a right to know what dangers they are facing,” said Earthjustice attorney Jenny Cassel. “If the dam holding this toxic waste breaks, which neighborhoods are going to be flooded? Which waterways? Who can they call to provide emergency response?”

Duke spokeswoman Erin Culbert said the company followed state laws for managing “public information around critical infrastructure” but was willing to reconsider.

“While that drove decisions, we will review the approach taken by other utilities and ask state regulators for further guidance,” she said.

She also punched back at the environmental groups.

“The media and the public will quickly recognize this as the latest attempt to use fear and the courts to upend public policy that directs the safe closure of hundreds of ash basins across the nation,” Culbert added.

In 2008, a dam collapsed at the TVA’s Kingston plant in Tennessee, sending more than a billion gallons of toxic sludge over 300 acres. It took out houses and caused more than $1 billion in damages. In 2014, Duke’s coal ash impoundment in North Carolina broke, fouling 70 miles of the Dan River.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency adopted its first national rules for handling coal combustion wastes in 2015, relying a lot on public disclosure by utilities and citizen lawsuits for enforcement. The Trump administration’s EPA said recently said it may revisit those rules after a request from industry.

The environmental groups’ targets include the Gallagher plant in New Albany, Indiana, and the East Bend power plant near Rabbit Hash, Kentucky. Both are along the Ohio River, a drinking water source for millions.

That Kentucky plant in Boone County holds 1.4 million tons of toxic waste behind aging earthen dams on the banks of the river, the environmental groups claim.

“The disasters in North Carolina and Tennessee show that we simply have to have the proper information to prepare our communities here in Kentucky,” said Mary Love, a member of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth.

Lisa Evans, an attorney with Earthjustice, said their review found no other utility blocking the inundation maps that show the consequences of a failed impoundment. She said there were also concerns about the structural integrity at a Gallagher pond.

Culbert said Gallagher’s main pond has been dewatered and is undergoing closure, which mitigates any structural stability concerns there. The plant is scheduled to retire by 2022, she said.

LG&E and KU Energy have made their emergency response plans and maps public. The Courier-Journal in June detailed the worst-case flooding prediction for LG&E’s Mill Creek plant in Louisville.

That disaster would unfold over three hours, sending dirty, toxic water from the Mill Creek power plant ash pond into the Valley Village neighborhood, covering some streets with as much as two to five feet of ash and water.

“The plan, specifically the map, shows what is possible,” said Mitchell Burmeister, a spokesman for Louisville Metro Emergency Services, at the time. He said LG&E “carefully monitors and controls the site and has a good response plan in place.”

Reach reporter James Bruggers at 502-582-4645 and at jbruggers@courier-journal.com.

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