The plume of polluted water was black. In the satellite images, it snaked from the coal ash landfill at the D.B. Wilson Power Plant in Western Kentucky, about 40 minutes south of Owensboro. The water went through a ditch, until it reached a sediment pond. There, the images showed the black plume spreading through the murky green water, before it dissipated.
The black water — which state regulators described as having a “very pronounced unpleasant odor” — had arsenic levels that exceed the federal standard by nearly a thousand times. Regulators say it’s possible the pollution has been seeping from the landfill for more than a decade, eventually making its way into the Green River and potentially contaminating the groundwater.
Big Rivers Electric — the utility that owns the power plant — has been cited for some of the pollution, and the Kentucky Department for Environmental Protection is still investigating the extent of the problem. The DEP declined a request for an interview but said in an email the department is continuing to work with the utility to address the concerns.
And as the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet works to weaken the state’s oversight of coal ash, there are unanswered questions about how sites like this will be dealt with.
Arsenic Nearly 1,000 Times the Federal Standard
During a routine inspection last October, Division of Waste Management geologists noticed black, smelly water seeping from the perimeter of the coal ash landfill at the D.B. Wilson Plant into an unlined ditch. From there, the polluted plume flowed into a sediment pond that eventually releases water into the Green River.
“It was a one-time event,” said Big Rivers spokeswoman Jennifer Keach. “We are working with the state to develop a remediation plan and Big Rivers is in compliance with all permits.”
But photos suggest the pollution has been ongoing for years. The plume is so dark it’s visible on Google Earth and has been captured in the site’s historic images for years. Regulators say the pollution could have begun as early as 2003.
Aside from being unpleasant and unsightly, testing revealed the black water was a veritable chemical soup. It contained high levels of chemicals like antimony, chlorides and molybdenum.
But the most striking problem was the amount of arsenic in the black water. Regulators from the Kentucky Division of Waste Management found it contained more than 980 times the federal standard.
“Those arsenic numbers are off the charts,” said Earthjustice attorney Thomas Cmar, who has pursued litigation against other coal ash sites in Kentucky for similar pollution issues.
The arsenic numbers were so high they also merited a mention in testimony from a state regulator about Kentucky’s proposed changes to its coal ash regulations, which are still in progress. In written testimony, Division of Waste Management geologist Todd Hendricks cited the pollution at the Wilson plant — though not by name — as an example of the potential hazards coal ash can pose to human health and the environment.
“Fluids containing arsenic at this level may be characteristically hazardous because of toxicity,” he wrote. “Contained landfills are regulated to the highest standards of any solid or special waste sites or facilities, but I have never seen leachate analysis from a contained landfill that indicated that the leachate itself could be characteristically hazardous.”
If the leachate is toxic enough to be characteristically hazardous, it has to be treated like toxic waste. Even if it’s not, it poses a potential threat to surface water and groundwater.
And those are the two major concerns regulators outlined in a follow-up letter sent to Big Rivers in March. Testing showed that both surface and groundwater contamination at the site is possible: Elevated levels of cadmium and arsenic were found in groundwater monitoring wells. And at the point where the wastewater is discharged into an unnamed tributary of the Green River, arsenic levels were slightly higher than the company’s permit allowed, prompting a Notice of Violation.
The D.B. Wilson plant was already being scrutinized when regulators saw the black plume. In 2014, Big Rivers was required to submit a Groundwater Assessment Plan to the state after high levels of chlorides were found in one of the site’s groundwater monitoring wells.
But in October 2016, regulators found signs that other chemicals could be migrating into groundwater: cadmium and arsenic. And they were concerned that the black water seeping from the coal ash landfill could have something to do with it.
Right now, the black water drains from the landfill into an unlined ditch, and eventually goes into a settling pond before being released into a tributary of the Green River. Big Rivers responded to the Kentucky Division of Waste Management’s concerns with a plan to add large amounts of a chemical called Klaraid into the settling pond.
“Their plan is basically, we’re going to dump some chemicals into the wastewater that will help the solid arsenic that might be in particle form settle out more effectively,” said Cmar after reviewing the document. “So, the water will be clearer. It won’t necessarily be clean.”
That concern is reflected in a letter from the state requesting more analysis.
“The cabinet, I think, very appropriately pointed out, if you have an unlined pond, which apparently this one is, you’re running the risk by treating in order to settle out the arsenic, of trading a surface water problem for a groundwater problem,” said Tom FitzGerald of the Kentucky Resources Council.
Treating the water with chemicals might cause the arsenic to settle to the bottom of the pond, FitzGerald said, which would mean the water that’s released into the river would be cleaner. But the arsenic that settles could work its way into the groundwater, creating new problems.
The problems at Big Rivers’ Wilson plant are coming to a head as the Kentucky Department for Environmental Protection prepares to enact new regulations that will weaken some aspects of the state’s regulation of coal ash sites.
The DEP is revamping the regulations to incorporate new, federal standards for coal ash sites. But in doing so, they’re also eliminating the current comprehensive permitting program that utilities have to undergo in order to build a new coal ash landfill, like the one at the Wilson plant. Rather than subject these massive engineering projects to scrutiny by state professionals before they’re built — a process that DEP officials said was essential back in 2010 — utilities will be able to self-certify the projects. If there are problems, enforcement will be after the fact, through state or citizen lawsuits.
Complicating the situation with Big Rivers is the fact that the utility’s managing director of environmental services played a major role in the rewriting of the regulations. As WFPL reported in January, those regulations were drafted with extensive one-sided input from electric utilities.
Many of the documents showing the sausage-making refer to an industry group called the Utility Information Exchange of Kentucky. Big Rivers’ Tom Shaw is the former chairman of the group, and emails obtained through an open records request show he played an integral role in arranging meetings with other utility representatives and regulators over the regulations and commenting on the drafts.
Keach, the Big Rivers spokeswoman, declined to make Shaw available for an interview.
State regulators have repeatedly defended the new regulations, saying they will continue inspection of the sites and enforcing the law. The latest problems at the D.B. Wilson plant were discovered during a routine inspection; the timing and frequency of these inspections are currently at the discretion of regulators, and the new law isn’t any more specific.
FitzGerald said even with the best intentions, looking for problems is more difficult when you’re essentially walking into a site blind.
“I think that your inspection and enforcement program becomes more complicated when you don’t have access to, when you haven’t reviewed the technical plans and specifications and imposed specific conditions to address site-specific concerns,” FitzGerald said.
He said the current regulations are far from perfect — in the case of Wilson, there’s a chance the pollution problem was going on for 14 years before it was detected by regulators.
But changing the regulations to allow regulators even less say over how landfills are built — and where key monitoring wells that detect groundwater pollution are placed — could make the problems even worse.
“You’re stumbling in after the fact, and you may not be able to effectively fix a problem that could have been avoided in the first place,” he said.
The Problem at Hand
In response to emailed questions, DEP spokesman John Mura said the Wilson plant would be allowed to transition to the new regulations when they’re in effect.
But the state is relying heavily on the provisions in Kentucky Administrative Regulations Chapter 45 to require Big Rivers to address the potential groundwater pollution at Wilson. When the new regulations take effect, it will no longer apply to the site.
Mura didn’t elaborate on the specific authority the state will have to enforce those provisions under the new regulation.
“There are some very serious questions that are outstanding regarding the ability of the agency to continue to exert regulatory authority over a facility that was permitted under one chapter and is now going to be allowed to transition into a new regulatory framework where there is no permit,” FitzGerald said.
The DEP’s new coal ash regulations were referred on April 5 to the second of two legislative committees they’re required to pass before being enacted. The committee will have 30 days to review the regulations. If they don’t, the regulations will become effective May 5.