Erica PetersonDirector of News and Programming
Erica is WFPL's Director of News and Programming. From 2011-2017, she was the Environment Reporter whose coverage of energy and environment in Kentucky won local and national awards and sparked numerous policy discussions and changes in the commonwealth. A previous resident of West Virginia, New Jersey, Minnesota and Illinois, Erica has a bachelor's degree from Carleton College, and a master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University. She lives with her husband and two sons in Louisville.
On paper, Kentucky has a ban on nuclear power plants. That’s still the case. But a new law opens up new ways for nuclear energy to be used in the Commonwealth.One of the things House Bill 559 allows is the re-enrichment of depleted uranium tails. But the legislation doesn’t go very far to help the one facility in the state that has been waiting for federal approval to re-enrich uranium tools.
Devastating floods have ravaged several eastern Kentucky communities in the last few years. Most start the same way: rain falls; creeks rise; and what residents have described as a ‘tsunami’ destroys everything in its path. Some citizens say coal mining is to blame, and they're turning to lawsuits against coal companies to recoup damages. They say the companies didn’t reclaim surface mine sites, which directly contributed to the flooding.This is what some say happened in Pike County on July 17, 2010.On a busy Saturday in Janie Caudill’s beauty shop on Harless Creek, Caudill darts around, highlighting customers’ hair. The whole place is brand new, decorated in red and black. You can't see the signs of the flood that destroyed Caudill's old shop and decimated nearly every home along the creek last year—but you still hear about it.“And since the flood, she doesn’t want to leave what she’s got,” Caudill tells her clients. She’s talking about her 81-year-old mother, who lives down the road. A year after the flood, her mother still sleeps in her clothes, just in case another rain comes and she has to evacuate in the middle of the night.Now, Harless Creek is low, but that doesn't stop residents from canceling their plans whenever it rains. A year and a half ago, about five inches fell and ran off the mountain. The water filled the creek and carried the town away.“This is like a piece of baloney between two slices of bread,” Caudill says, pointing to the mountains above her shop. “You’ve got mountains on each side—it’s very narrow. There’s over 100-some families who live here on this mile stretch of road. There were 80-some cars took out of here that were just smashed. Piled up and smashed.”According to Prestonsburg attorney Ned Pillersdorf, the flood shouldn’t have happened. When the civil case goes to trial in March, Pillersdorf and his team will argue that the flood was caused by Cambrian Coal, the company that's surface mining the hills above the creek. He has reason to believe he can win the case—he secured a settlement for Breathitt County residents earlier this year in a nearly identical case.By law, coal companies are required to reclaim the land once mining is over. The process varies by site, but involves replacing topsoil and replanting vegetation. Pillersdorf says Cambrian didn’t do this—and the lack of vegetation to soak up the rain meant the water all went downhill at once.“Just imagine pouring a gallon of milk on just a bare table with nothing on it,” Pillersdorf said. “The milk would run off all at once. If you put a bunch of towels down, the milk would eventually drip off. The towels are what should have been the reclamation. When they failed to reclaim, it’s like pouring milk on a bare table.”Jack Spadaro is a former federal mine regulator who now consults on safety and environmental issues.“As far as I could see on Cambrian, there was no effort whatsoever to do any reclamation at all,” he said. “None.”Spadaro evaluated the site for Pillersdorf, and says the Commonwealth of Kentucky should have noticed Cambrian’s lack of reclamation and done something about it.“They’re supposed to inspect these mines on a regular basis and this mine had gotten completely out of compliance and had been for some time because there were very large areas where there simply had not been any re-vegetation done at all,” he said. “No grading, no re-vegetation, no seeding.”Records from the Kentucky Department of Mine Reclamation and Enforcement show the state realized Cambrian wasn’t properly reclaiming the land. Two-and-a-half weeks after the flood, the department issued a notice of non-compliance to Cambrian for failing to reclaim some of its mine lands in the required time frame.Paul Rothman is an environmental scientist in the department.“It looks there was a significant rainfall event in that area and that was the underlying cause for a lot of that activity out there,” he said.But Rothman says the department’s initial assessment doesn’t seem to suggest any connection between the lack of reclamation and the flooding that wiped out Harless Creek.Janie Caudill reopened her beauty salon in April. She says it’s an improvement over the building she lost in the flood, but it reminds her of the disaster. She shakes her head and lights a cigarette.“I’m sorry, but I never smoked till after the flood,” she said apologetically. “Even though I’ve got a nicer salon now and it’s bigger and it’s nice and everything, my old salon, if I could get it back and not have to go through what I went through the last year, I would take it back in a heartbeat.”Despite the flood, Caudill says she’s not against mountaintop removal—she just wants mine operators to follow the law. “If they are going to mine, they should mine where they have permits and follow the rules and regulations,” she said. “They should reclaim the earth so they’re not going to endanger people’s lives.”But she’s worried. Hydrologists say there’s been a 400 percent increase in the likelihood of a 100-year flood event, and current Harless Creek residents can expect several in their lifetimes.
Coal-fired electricity is one of the reasons Kentucky’s utility rates are among the lowest in the nation. And as new pollution regulations take effect, coal is the reason Kentucky will be among the hardest hit states. Rate increases currently before the Public Service Commission are one sign of the changing tide.In September, dozens of people showed up at a public meeting in Louisville to weigh in on proposed electricity rate increases. Most of them, like Rev. Milton Seymore, were against the higher rates.“We don’t have no problem with the shareholders making money,” he said. “But at the same time, the shareholders cannot make their profit on the backs of the needy and the poor and the downtrodden.”Although few would volunteer to pay more for electricity, Kentucky customers have long paid less than most Americans. In 2009, Kentuckians paid about 8 cents per kilowatt hour at home—the fifth lowest in the country.“And that’s probably going to change,” says Andrew Melnykovych. Melnykovych is the spokesman for the Kentucky Public Service Commission, and he says Kentucky’s proximity to both the Appalachian and Illinois coalfields means that transportation costs are lower.“The other thing that has helped keep rates down is the fact that a lot of the power plants that generate the power for Kentucky are fully depreciated,” he said. “I mean, they’ve been paid for and they’ve been paid for for a long time.”But that’s changing, too. As the state’s coal-fired power plants age, companies are being forced to consider costly upgrades to remain in compliance with federal laws. Louisville Gas & Electric has announced plans to replace its Cane Run plant with natural gas—a move that it expects will result in a small rate increase for Kentucky Utilities customers who will be using most of the electricity.The Kentucky Chamber of Commerce has long contended that the state’s cheap power is one factor that draws investment in Kentucky. Vice President Bryan Sunderland says it’s an advantage Kentucky has over its neighbors.“Like anything there are a number of factors a business will consider depending on what they do,” he said. “Education is always a huge factor. Taxes, regulation and transportation. Our central location is a huge factor as well. Energy costs really is one of those competitive advantages where we see a big difference between us and some of our surrounding states.”Kentucky does have the lowest rate in the region for industrial electricity. Industrial customers paid 4.9 cents per kilowatt hour in 2009. (The lowest rate in the country for industrial electricity is in Washington State, which relies heavily on hydroelectric power.)But as prices rise, the challenge for Kentucky will be to attract businesses for other reasons. Jason Bailey of non-profit Mountain Association for Community and Economic Development says the commonwealth will have to learn to adapt.“Some things are changing and we won’t ever go back to the time when electricity was as cheap as it was,” Bailey said. “So the question for Kentucky, we think, is ‘how are we going to grow jobs and grow an economy in a different setting?’ We can’t do that just by being cheap because there are cheaper places to do business regardless of our electricity prices in Kentucky.”Bailey says as it is, most Kentuckians don’t get to take advantage of the low rates. Poor housing stock and a lack of insulation means the rates are only low on paper.“People pay bills. They don’t pay electricity rates,” he said. “In fact, for utilities that serve around 37 percent of the population, the average monthly electricity bill for households is actually higher than the U.S. average. And for a smaller portion of utilities, the bills are at least 20 percent higher.”The Public Service Commission will consider Louisville Gas and Electric and Kentucky Utilities’ proposed rate increase in a public hearing next week. The commissioners will make a decision on the case by mid-December.
Tigers, grizzly bears, sea turtles and humpback whales have long been mascots of endangered species. But then…there's the pink mucket, which once peppered river bottoms in Kentucky, but has been decimated by pollution.Earlier this week, a team of scientists ventured into the Green River in an effort to reintroduce lab-grown pink muckets into their natural habitat.“You better not get on my right side!” Monte McGregor warns. He’s wearing a snorkel, preparing to go underwater. “Stand on this side because as soon as I blow my snorkel, you’ll be in the direct path of my water.”Every time he comes up, McGregor's colleagues hand him four baby mussels to push into the river bed. The mussels are tiny…a little bit smaller than a penny.“These animals today that we’re releasing, the pink mucket—Lampsilis abrupta is the scientific name—are just as rare as things you see at the Louisville Zoo or out in the wild in Africa,” McGregor says. But he’s trying to change that.McGregor is an aquatic scientist with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife and he works in one of the nation’s few mussel hatcheries. With his staff, he raises endangered species in the lab and then releases them into healthy waterways.Nobody's going to put the pink mucket on a bumper sticker as a call to action for the environment—it’s not nearly photogenic enough—but what McGregor's doing is restoring an essential part of the river ecosystem.The mussels act as filters, consuming bacteria and cleaning the water. McGregor says these bivalves are a good barometer of a river's general health.“These animals are probably the most sensitive animals that live in the rivers and streams today,” he said. “They’re similar to a canary in a coal mine. So if the canary dies, there’s no oxygen. Same thing in the river. If these mussels are dying off, then something’s going on in the water that’s causing that water not to be clean anymore.”Besides killing mussels, pollution also wreaks havoc on their sex lives. Okay…so the muckets don't exactly have sex, but their reproduction is a team sport.It takes bass—as in the fish—to make more muckets. When a female mucket is fertilized, she incubates the fetuses in her shell. Then she puts out a lure especially designed to attract bass. When the fish bites, she releases the fetuses. They stay on the bass for weeks, then drop off and live alone.“It’s not easily done. There’s a lot of chances for that chain of events to break down,” says Leroy Koch, a scientist with the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife.“All they really need to do is replace themselves throughout their lifetime to keep their population stable,” Koch said. “But I think often they’re not even able to do that. So the immense numbers that females produce and that process, it’s not real conducive to a quick population growth.”By growing them in a hatchery and releasing them into the river, Koch and McGregor hope to give the muckets a fighting chance in their natural habitat. The Green River has started to recover from years of pollution and now a single 10-mile stretch contains about 16 percent of all the species in the country.Monte McGregor is in the river, too, exhilarated by his several minutes in the fifty-degree water.Koch looks on.“It’s taken us a long time to get to this point,” he said. “It’s taken many years, many decades, to lose the mussel resource. It’s going to take a while to recover. It’s because of the condition of our streams. Everything that we put on the property, on the land, flows downstream. For mussels, it’s pretty remarkable that we have as many left as we do.”And the scientists are hopeful. They’ve tagged all the mussels, and they’ll be back in a year to check on them.
You can’t see the smokestacks of the Cane Run Power Station from Stephanie Hogan’s home, even though she lives a block away. And while the power plant isn’t visible, it’s still a looming presence in Hogan’s life.“Oh, he breathes so bad, he sounds like Darth Vader.” Hogan shakes her head, and her two-year-old son Cody wheezes. “You ain’t even been running.”The family bought their trailer near the Louisville Gas and Electric-operated power plant about 15 months ago, and since then, Cody has developed serious respiratory problems. Eventually, his mom took him to a specialist, who pinpointed the potential cause of Cody’s sickness.“I think it was the second visit, she asked where we lived,” Hogan said. “And I told her, and she said ‘oh, you live next to that power plant. You need to move.’”But Hogan can’t move. She's trapped by her trailer’s low resale value, as well as her son’s rising medical expenses. Cody has asthma. He's had tubes installed in his ears twice and three times he's come down with an unexplained fever. Hogan estimates she spent nearly $4,000 in doctor’s visits and medication last year.She says the culprit is coal ash: the sometimes-fine, sometimes-chunky material that’s leftover after coal is burned. It coats her porch, and she doesn’t let Cody play outside anymore, no matter how much he begs.An Inevitable ByproductCoal generates more than half of the nation's energy and it’s burned in power plants in all but four states. One inevitable byproduct of burning coal is ash, and there’s a lot of coal ash in America.So much, in fact, that “you could fill the boxcars of a freight train that would stretch from New York City to Melbourne, Australia every year with the coal ash that American power plants generate,” Jeff Stant said. He’s the director of the Environmental Integrity Project’s Coal Combustion Waste Initiative.“A lot of this ash has got the consistency of talc. People breathe it in, their lungs never get rid of it. It has metals that cross the lung’s tissue into the blood stream. There have been studies done of the exposure of rats to this dust and other lab animals, and the results have been very disturbing.”At the Cane Run plant, the ash is stored in a landfill and a pond. The pond is invisible from the road, but the landfill is pretty obvious: huge piles of slate-grey coal ash rising off the banks of the Ohio River. At the base of the landfill is a pauper’s cemetery.“It’s kinda fitting, you know,” Kathy Little said, walking through the cemetery. “It really is because that’s where they want to be, within the poorest of the poor areas.”Little lives in one of the houses facing the power plant. The Cane Run Power Station is one of three area LG&E coal-fired plants. It burns 1.3 million tons of coal every year. Last year, it produced 160,000 tons of coal ash.Before the ash is placed in a landfill, it’s mixed with different materials that create a cement-like consistency. It’s loaded into piles, which is where LG&E’s Mike Winkler says it stays.“It’s plenty heavy enough to stay in place,” he said. “And during the placement process if it’s too dry, then it’s wetted. We’ll have trucks that come through and spray it to give it wetness. But it’s got enough moisture in it that it doesn’t blow off in general.”But as we walk down the street, Little points to the air above the landfill.“Yeah. There it goes,” she said. “You see the black up there? If you notice, you’ll see some ash blowing. That’s what they’re trying to keep on their property, and it’s not happening.”Sure enough, ash wisps are flying off. They end up on nearby porches and siding. For the neighbors, this is annoying, and also worrisome. Samples taken by the Louisville Metro Air Pollution Control District and, most recently, LG&E itself have confirmed the presence of fly ash on several area homes.Damage Control“Okay, here’s our ash pond!” Steve Turner exclaims. He’s the general manager at LG&E’s Cane Run Power Station, and he is giving Kathy Little and her husband Tony a tour of the plant.“You can see bottom ash, but it’s down at the water level, so it stays wetted.”After the company released the results of their sampling, they convened the three families whose homes were sampled for a meeting. LG&E is doing damage control.But there are conflicting data. The first samples taken directly off their homes show alarmingly high amounts of fly ash. But the second set, gathered from the air, shows much lower levels.Turner stands in a conference room in front of a PowerPoint presentation about the company’s operation.“So to get started, this is the Cane Run site,” he said. “We are a generating facility. We generate electricity. And we do that safely, reliably and while complying with all of our environmental permits.”The people in the room want to talk about the ash. As Turner speaks, Debbie Walker shakes her head. She looks disgusted.“Why don’t you live by it?” she asked Turner.“Well, the health issues…” he trails off.“We can’t leave because nobody’s going to buy our places because of this dump,” Walker said. “If you don’t think it’s a health issue I ask anybody in this room to go live by it.”“Well, again...”“Well, yeah, that’s what I thought.”But the company isn't sure what to do about it. Cane Run is a coal-fired power plant, and it’s impossible to burn coal without creating coal ash.A Growing ProblemThe plant’s pond and landfill hold hundred of thousands of tons of coal ash and that amount is growing. It's growing because Americans’ consumption of coal is rising—from 1989 to 2009, the amount of coal burned in the U.S. increased by more than 100 million tons.New pollution control devices on power plants are exacerbating the problem. Jeff Stant of the Environmental Integrity Project says while these devices reduce air pollution, they increase the amount of waste.“The more you try to control the emissions of a power plant, the more toxic the ash becomes and the more ash you generate,” Stant said.LG&E says it’s considering a few different options to control the ash the plant’s neighbors see flying off the landfill. They might put an adhesive on the landfill and they're trying to reduce the amount of dust that’s kicked up by trucks on roads near the landfill. The company says more testing is needed to determine whether fly ash is leaving the site, but if Metro Government decides the dust is posing a nuisance to the plant’s neighbors, LG&E may be forced to take action.The company is planning to stop putting ash in the current landfill soon…and start putting it in another, yet-to-be-built landfill.The new landfill is designed to hold 16 to 20 years of coal ash, but the company estimates the plant won’t be burning coal for that long. If upcoming federal regulations make it too expensive to burn coal, the plant may switch to natural gas, or even shut down. Regardless, LG&E’s Mike Winkler says the coal ash will remain.“It will stay,” he said. “Ultimately if this facility is closed from the standpoint of burning coal, then there are closure plans for landfills and ash ponds that you have to develop with the state, where essentially they’re capped with clay and then there’s monitoring that goes on associated with that.”That doesn’t make Kathy Little feel better about living across from the landfill and pond. Especially since there's nothing between the ash and the ground. She worries the groundwater is contaminated.“They’ve put all this here,” Little said. “Now are we going to have to live with this, with this toxic dump, is basically what it is. Even if they cover it up, it’s a toxic dump.”But LG&E says it's not a toxic dump, and neither does the federal government…yet.Coal Ash and the EPAKathy Little and Debbie Walker stand in Walker’s front yard, 50 feet from the ash landfill at the Cane Run plant. They watch as heavy machinery backs up, pushing ash from one pile to another.Walker says she used to be able to see Indiana from her window. Now, she just sees the mountains of coal ash.“That wasn’t here when we first moved here. If that was here when I first moved here, I wouldn’t have moved here,” she laughed. “There’s no way.”Little says she feels abandoned by federal and state regulators.“I have nothing against coal,” she said. “Don’t get me wrong—I don’t. The coal didn’t cause this situation. This private company caused this situation and Kentucky allowed them to do it. That’s who I blame.”The women feel like there are no regulations in place. There are, but they're not always easy to notice. When a power company wants to build a landfill or storage pond, it has to get a permit from the Kentucky Department of Waste Management. For landfills, it also needs a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers. There’s a water quality certificate from the state for discharge, and a permit from Metro Government for air emissions.The federal Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t regulate coal ash. Last year it proposed two rules—one to regulate ash as a hazardous material and another to designate it a “special waste.” Environmental groups have been lobbying for the former, while the coal industry wants the latter.Coal Ash and RecyclingLG&E’s John Voyles says if the EPA characterizes coal ash as a hazardous waste, it will halt coal ash recycling. Right now, there’s a small industry centered around repurposing coal ash in materials like cement. Voyles says all that ash could end up in a landfill if it’s suddenly declared toxic.“If it’s declared hazardous waste, all of the beneficial reuses will disappear because you won’t have people wanting to say, I want to put a hazardous waste product in a gypsum wallboard or in cement,” he said. “Where does it go? If it’s declared hazardous, it’s hazardous.”Ash recycling is something that the utility company likes to talk about. If the ash is reused, it doesn’t take up space in landfills or ponds. Plus, the utility company can profit off the waste.Jeff Stant of the Environmental Integrity Project agrees with the utilities that recycling the ash is essential. But he says some of the so-called “beneficial reuses” for coal ash —like building roads or filling in wetlands—are even worse for the environment“It has to be ash that’s put in concrete or cement or shingles in a way that it’s encapsulated and the metal leaching potential is made very low,” he said.But in reality, coal ash recycling is still a small industry. According to the American Coal Ash Association, nationwide about 41 percent of the coal ash produced in 2009 was recycled in some way. At Cane Run, that figure was much smaller for the same year—only about four percent of their ash was recycled. The rest goes to the landfill or pond.In her trailer a block away from the plant, Stephanie Hogan watches her two-year-old son Cody play. Out of fear that his breathing problems were caused by the coal ash that coats her porch, Hogan won’t let him outside.At this point, Hogan wants LG&E to fix the situation, no matter the cost.“They’re going to have to upgrade what they have now and they want to pass it on to us. They want to pass it on to the consumers,” she said. She sees irony in the situation. “So, it’s like, you’re poisoning my child and you want me to pay for you not to poison him.”But while a lot of the neighborhood’s anger is focused at the power company, many are bewildered why this is allowed to happen. Kathy Little has asked for help from Metro Government and the state, but still hasn’t seen results.“You know, we work hard, we don’t sit over here on government assistance or anything like that, that’s for sure,” she said. “We all work very, very hard and pay taxes. We basically pay taxes to these government agencies that are supposed to protect our children. And we are paying a very high price for cheap electricity, for cheap power.”