Often, pollution is invisible. It’s in the exhaust particles we breathe walking past traffic, or the traces of mercury in Kentucky fish. But at the Green Station Landfill in Webster County, it’s obvious.
At times, the coal ash leachate shimmers black like an oil slick. At other times, it oozes chemical green. Sometimes, it stains the soil the color of rusted molasses. And in videos, the coal ash liquids trickle off the landfill like teal glacial waters leaving behind a pale salty residue.
This mixture, containing elevated levels of carcinogenic and neurotoxic chemicals, is seeping from the Green Station Landfill into the Green River toward its confluence with the Ohio.
Kentucky’s Energy and Environment Cabinet has seen “problems with the site and its management” since 2004, when the state first placed the ash landfill under assessment for polluting groundwater, said John Mura, cabinet spokesman.
Inspectors first reported the leachate flowing into the river in the summer of 2017, but it wasn’t until May of this year the Energy and Environment Cabinet presented Big Rivers Electric Corporation with a violation for the pollution.
“You know we can’t change the past, but we are confident that there’s a good faith effort being made to fix this problem and right now, that is our biggest concern,” Mura said.
And yet, the pollution continues. The site was still leaking as of November, Mura said.
Big Rivers declined an interview for this story, but said in a statement that workers have dug trenches to route the pollution to a nearby pond with a “permitted discharge” back into the Green River; a river that local residents say people still occasionally use for catfishing and boating.
The Green Station Landfill is one of 37 coal ash waste sites around the Commonwealth that have shown evidence of polluting Kentucky waters, according to Earthjustice reviews of compliance data.
The ash leftover from burning coal for electricity has proven itself a persistent environmental challenge across the country. One study found 91 percent of coal-fired power plants with monitoring data are contaminating nearby groundwater with unsafe levels of pollution, according to an Environmental Integrity Project report.
Environmental advocates say utilities in Kentucky haven’t been accountable for the way they manage coal ash, and it’s people downstream who pay for it.
“It’s an unfortunate and ongoing legacy of the fact that utilities have not been held accountable for the way they manage their waste historically,” said Tom FitzGerald, environmental attorney with the Kentucky Resources Council. “We socialize those impacts and they become part of the background burden of pollution on these rivers and on these lands.”
Ash On The Green River
The Green River is deep and narrow where it passes the Green Station Landfill in Webster County. According to the Division of Water, the river is healthy: the state says it fully supports the catfish, crappie, bass and other aquatic life that call it home — though it hasn’t been assessed since 2013.
Country folk singer John Prine crooned about the river in his famous song about the destructive impacts of strip mining.
“When I die let my ashes float down the Green River
Let my soul roll on up to the Rochester dam
I’ll be halfway to Heaven with Paradise waitin’
Just five miles away from wherever I am”
The ashes Prine sings of would float right past the Green Station Landfill on their way toward the Ohio River. The station used to be home to three coal-fired power plants; one has since closed, another sits idle, but the Robert Green unit still burns coal to make electricity.
The leftover ash is stored two ways: in a pond, and in the landfill, large enough to span 128 football fields and stand 50 stories high, records show. You can see it rising up beside the highway while driving the Pennyrile Parkway near Sebree, Kentucky.
When it rains, the landfill absorbs water. Like brewing coffee, the water filters through the landfill accumulating heavy metals from the coal ash, before seeping into the surrounding environment.
Over the last two years, state inspectors repeatedly found streams of coal ash waste flowing from the landfill’s slopes at rates up to 60 gallons per minute, even on sunny days, records show. They also tested groundwater underneath the landfill. All five monitoring wells showed evidence of coal ash pollution.
Inspectors discovered these streams on multiples visits spanning from June 2017 to April 2019. At times, they documented streams of coal ash leachate flowing directly into the river.
At one of the seeps along the river, inspectors found levels of the cancer-causing pollutant arsenic between eight and 25 times higher than drinking water standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency. At that same site, they confirmed mercury — a neurotoxin that accumulates in the environment — and thallium, an element which can affect the nervous system, lung, heart and liver. Both also exceeded drinking water standards.
At other seeps along the river, Big Rivers found elevated levels of lead (a neurotoxin), cadmium (a carcinogen) and the radioactive element radium.
State inspectors haven’t done any fish sampling on recent visits, but Mura said there were no obvious signs of collapsing aquatic ecosystems. Big Rivers spokeswoman Jennifer Keach said in an email that “tests showed minimal impact to the river.”
Residents say there’s a lot of barge traffic on the Green River, but people still fish and hunt along its banks. Some still eat what they catch too, said Emery Thomas, who’s the superintendent in the nearby town of Sebree.
“They do fish on the river,” he said. “Not very many, but yes people still do fish on the river.”
Thomas grew up next to the power plant. He said it’s more protective of the environment now than it used to be. Locals used to haul off loads of coal ash to use as fill on their properties, Thomas said.
“Any kind of pollution, you need to try and take care of the problem,” he said. “I think they’re trying to do it.”
Green River Drinking Water
Thomas and other Sebree residents are among those who also drink water from the Green River.
The intake is about a half-mile downriver from where the coal ash is leaching into the river, said Henderson Water Utility General Manager Tom Williams.
The intake actually belongs to Big Rivers, but Henderson’s south water treatment plant pulls about three million gallons a day off it. Most goes to a chicken processing plant, but some is used for drinking water for about 5,000 people in Sebree and nearby Beech Grove.
Fortunately, the drinking water shows no signs of contamination — in sampling records going back decades. Henderson only samples the finished drinking water, but that’s what counts.
Utility officials say they use normal treatment processes and haven’t seen any problems, even though they know the Green River has many potential sources of pollution: pesticides, oil and gas production, mining and industry.
Williams said neither state officials or Big Rivers ever told Henderson officials about the coal ash spilling into the river. The first they heard about the pollution was from a WFPL News reporter.
“It’s a cause for concern, especially if it picks up from these levels,” Williams said. “But I know the Division of Waste Management and Water are working with Big Rivers to try and solve this.”
Back In The River
After years of contaminating the Green River, Big Rivers has begun to clean up the mess.
The company began digging trenches 30 feet deep running parallel to the river. A report to the state says they’re expected to finish by the end of the year, though Keach said in a statement they are already complete.
At the bottom of the trenches, Big Rivers is installing drains that will direct the coal ash leachate into a pond near the landfill. There, the company will dilute the pollution before it’s dumped back into the Green River through a legally permitted outfall pipe.
In the end, the same amount of pollution will still flow into the river, but Big Rivers will meter out the pollution at concentrations acceptable to the Energy and Environment Cabinet. Mura said the cabinet is hopeful Big Rivers has addressed the problem.
“The collection pond is under a permit and we wouldn’t issue a permit unless we felt whatever was being ultimately discharged into the Green River was according to state statute,” he said.
Though researchers have discovered short-term impacts, less is known about the future.
At least 37 of the 43 coal ash waste sites in Kentucky appear to be contaminating state waters, according to Earthjustice data.
Still, Kentucky continues to generate about 75 percent of its electricity with the bituminous black rock — much of which comes from its own coal mines.
Even as power plants continue to burn coal, Obama-era rules will force many of the wet coal ash waste sites, known as ash ponds, to close.
But the rules don’t necessarily apply to landfills, even though they have many of the same problems, said Lisa Evans, senior counsel at the environmental advocacy group Earthjustice.
“We found that an extremely high percentage of landfills were also contaminating groundwater so this is not just a problem with unlined coal ash ponds,” Evans said. “I think that’s what you are seeing at this Kentucky plant.”
FitzGerald, with the Kentucky Resources Council, said the Green Station Landfill is part of a legacy of undermangement in Kentucky and across the country. Power plants have not done enough to control coal ash pollution and it’s the people downstream who pay, he said.
“If we don’t deal with it now, it becomes the next generation’s burden,” FitzGerald said.
For that reason, FitzGerald said all of the state’s coal ash waste sites need to be capped and closed with liners that won’t allow harmful pollutants to seep into the environment.
“Yes it will cost ratepayers to properly manage these wastes going forward, as well as to deal with the legacy wastes,” FitzGerald said. “Because if we don’t deal with it now, it becomes the next generation’s burden.”
This post has been updated.