(This piece was originally published on January 14, 2019 by the Indianapolis Star.)

Utilities across the country — including in Indiana — admitted late last year that they violated state and federal pollution standards by leaking dangerous levels of toxic chemicals from their coal ash ponds into nearby groundwater.

The admissions are expected to lead to the eventual clean-up of toxic sites around the nation, although the Donald Trump administration has extended the clean-up timeline, allowing the pits to keep spewing dangerous chemicals for nearly two more years.

In Indiana, which leads the nation in number of coal ash ponds, that news comes as a beacon to those who live around the sites of current and former coal-fired power plants.

“The trigger has been pulled for mandatory clean-up,” said Lisa Evans, senior counsel at Earthjustice, an nonprofit environmental law group. “It is not shovels in the ground yet, but it is a good step to reduce the risk in neighboring communities.”

Numerous utilities have disclosed that toxic waste at more than 65 power plants in more than 20 states have leaked harmful chemicals. In Indiana, two utilities — Duke Energy and Northern Indiana Public Service Company — have polluted in excess of standards at five different power plants.

Still, the majority of plants in Indiana have not yet posted the notifications that would trigger clean-up, according to Evans. She expects more such disclosures in the spring from the other major utilities, including Indianapolis Power & Light, Vectren Energy, and Indiana Michigan Power.

Indiana is home to roughly 85 coal ash ponds storing more than 60 million cubic yards of coal ash.

The first step to cleaning them up is to stop the contamination from continuing, said Tim Maloney, senior policy director at the Hoosier Environmental Council. For most sites, he added, that could mean removing the ash from the ponds.

Several utilities have submitted plans to the Indiana Department of Environmental Management to close their ponds by keeping the ash where it is and capping it.

Environmental groups say the recent disclosures bolster the argument against leaving the ash in place, where it could continue to pollute. “That is wholly unacceptable and any outcome other than removal is just absurd on the face of it,” Maloney told IndyStar.

IDEM is in the process of reviewing the plans and has asked the utilities for more information. The agency says it does not have the authority to tell utilities how to close their ponds, under the federal rule.

The state has, however, come down clearly on one aspect of the rule: The utilities must control, minimize or eliminate the infiltration of liquids into coal ash and the release of its toxic chemicals into ground or surface water.

In letters the agency sent to the utilities in December, it said the proposed closure plan “leaves waste in place either in contact or potential contact with ground water” and that “IDEM cannot approve a closure plan that would leave (coal ash) in place without a description of how the plan controls, minimizes or eliminates” the contact and contamination.

“We’ve had a lot of back and forth and have asked that question from the start, but we haven’t gotten what we think are satisfactory answers,” said Rebecca Eifert Joniskan, IDEM’s Office of Land Quality permit branch chief.

While the agency cannot direct utilities to close a specific way, Joniskan said it would continue to provide the companies with comments on the “deficiencies” in their plans, as they work toward approval. The utilities could choose to change their approach, she added, but emphasized it’s their decision.

One Indiana utility, NIPSCO, has said it plans to “clean close” its ash ponds or to remove the ash, which is “the most conservative or protective measure that IDEM outlines,” according to spokesman Nick Meyer.

He said that closing the ash ponds is an important first step to addressing the groundwater impacts, and that closure by removal was “the best fit” for NIPSCO given the smaller size of its ponds. The utility estimates it will cost about $16 million to close five ponds at one of its plants.

Duke Energy also agrees that closing the ash ponds is a step in the corrective action process, which it says it is already working on. Duke has proposed to close the majority of its ponds by capping the ash in unlined pits that are sitting within five feet of groundwater.

“Our proposed closure plans are designed to protect people and the environment and comply with state and federal regulations,” Duke spokeswoman Angeline Protogere told IndyStar.

After the ponds are closed, the second step for utilities will be to develop clean-up plans.

Protogere said Duke will discuss clean-up options with the community before selecting a remedy.

Those options could include a pump-and-treat system that pumps the contaminated water out of the ground, treats and cleans it, and then returns it. Maloney said utilities could also build an underground slurry wall that is meant to keep the contamination from moving offsite or further polluting the aquifer.

He said it’s important to take action “sooner than later to halt any further contamination.”

Still, Evans from Earthjustice thinks there will be a few obstacles to getting the clean-up plans rolling.

“We can’t count on the federal EPA to enforce the coal ash rule, they have the authority but it’s clear the administration isn’t interested in using it,” she said. “And I don’t think we can count on states either, including Indiana, to force the clean-ups.”

While the closure plans fall under IDEM’s oversight, Joniskan said, the clean-up plans are self-implemented by the utilities and do not require agency approval.

That is why IDEM is working to get its own coal ash program in place, according to Joniskan, so that it can be more involved in the clean-up process. Joniskan said it is still working to get the state-level language in place to send to the EPA to review. She imagines it will take about a year until finalized.

It’s been a challenge because of recent changes at the federal level. “It’s hard to design a program while the earth is forever shifting under our feet,” she said.

The original clean-up order, implemented in 2015 under the Obama administration, was the first ever federal regulation of the disposal of coal ash. It was born from a 2008 spill in Tennessee that spewed billions of gallons of the toxic sludge. and its need was again highlighted by a 2014 spill in North Carolina.

The 2015 law said that ash ponds that are a known source of contamination or are within five feet of groundwater must close and be cleaned up by April 2019.

In March, some of the first monitoring results were released, proving that nearly all coal ash ponds are leaking toxic pollutants into groundwater.

But in July, the Trump administration rolled out amendments to the rule that give coal plant owners until October 2020 to clean up certain ash ponds. Other rollbacks to the 2015 rule weakened drinking water protections and allowed state officials to end groundwater monitoring.

Several groups, including the Hoosier Environmental Council and Earthjustice, filed suit in October to force the Trump administration to uphold the original rules. Especially because just a few months prior, U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., — the same court where the current suit is pending — ruled that the Obama-era regulations did not go far enough to protect the public.

Trackback

there are no comments

Sorry, comments are closed.