The coal used to power our homes leaves behind mountains of ash. At one power plant in Western Kentucky, that coal ash is stored in a pair of unlined landfills that may have been polluting local groundwater for as long as 18 years.
Evidence from satellite images, state inspections and the utility’s own groundwater monitoring reports reveal mountains of ash slowly leaching pollution into the nearby environment at the D.B. Wilson Power Plant, about 40 minutes south of Owensboro.
Kentucky officials saw results consistent with coal ash contamination and they even called for further testing, but the state has never forced the plant’s owner, Big Rivers Electric Corporation, to clean up its groundwater.
Regulators didn’t force the company to address the issue in 2016 when a state inspector encountered a black stream of coal ash waste flowing nearly a mile through unlined ditches into a pond that discharges into the Green River.
They didn’t force the company to address it in November of 2017 when Big Rivers reported arsenic levels twice the federal standards in the groundwater at two wells beside the landfills. They didn’t force the company to clean up groundwater, even though at the time, Kentucky’s Energy and Environment Cabinet was hashing out an agreement to clean up the black ooze leaching from the surface of the landfills.
Officials could have called on the power plant to clean up the groundwater, but it hasn’t — even after reaching an agreement to clean up the surface of the site in May of this year.
As plumes of coal ash pollution spread through groundwater, the contamination can enter nearby rivers and streams, impacting ecosystems and possibly spoiling drinking water sources for future generations. There’s potential this is happening at the D.B. Wilson plant, said Earthjustice attorney Thomas Cmar.
“The Wilson site has very significant levels of arsenic and other coal ash contamination and that is not just going to stay home near the site, it’s going to travel over time, it’s going to enter the environment,” Cmar said.
Photos of the black ooze at the surface go back to at least 2010, though regulators say the pollution could have begun as early as 2003. Some of the photos even depict the black ooze pooling around the edges of one of the monitoring wells — wells installed to help regulators keep track of what’s in the groundwater.
Officials say the ooze is likely the culprit for the contamination shown in the wells. Kentucky Division of Waste Management Assistant Director Edward Winner says for that reason, it would be unwise to call for a groundwater cleanup while abating pollution on the surface. But he also says more could have been done sooner.
“But this is the right action. If anybody wants any complaint, the complaint is we should have acted on the leachate earlier than we did. That’s probably fair, but this is the right track, right now,” Winner said.
The Right Track
Roughly 79 percent of the electricity Kentuckians consume came from coal power last year. The leftover ash is often stored in large, unlined landfills and ponds that can pollute groundwater with carcinogens including arsenic, cadmium and mercury.
In Kentucky, all 14 power plants covered under federal coal ash rules appear to be leaching coal ash pollutants into the earth. The problem isn’t unique to Kentucky; all over the country the Environmental Integrity Project has documented unlined coal ash landfills and ponds polluting groundwater.
The Environmental Protection Agency has concluded that among the different ways to dispose of coal ash, unlined ponds and landfills “presents the greatest risks to human health and the environment.” Under federal rules all new ponds and landfills must have composite liners while the old ones are allowed to operate until their operators find out they are leaking.
Kentucky’s Energy and Environment Cabinet learned the landfills at the D.B. Wilson Power Plant might be leaking into the groundwater in 2000.
That’s when Big Rivers reported stark increases in the amount of chlorides entering three monitoring wells underneath one of its coal ash landfills, according to an inspection report. While chlorides don’t necessarily pose an environmental hazard, they are a proverbial “canary in the coal mine” for coal ash contamination.
That led inspectors down a rabbit hole, asking Big Rivers to discover the extent of the pollution and determine its source. In 2008, Big Rivers released a report blaming the pollution on an exploration hole from an oil and gas operation in the 1930s. But the state’s inspector didn’t really believe that was the root cause of the pollution. He wrote in reports that the pollution was most likely was coming from Big Rivers’ landfills.
So the inspector put the site back into groundwater assessment in 2014. That assessment has never closed. In the meantime, Big Rivers has reported elevated levels of pollution in the groundwater every year since 2012.
In some cases, the pollution exceeded drinking water standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency; in others, Big Rivers reports the pollution exceeded levels naturally found in the groundwater, according to groundwater monitoring reports.
The contaminants include arsenic, barium, boron, cadmium, sulfates, iron, total dissolved solids and total organic carbon; all of which are consistent with coal ash pollution. Some of the contaminants may be relatively harmless, others are more dangerous. Arsenic is after all, famously used as poison, cadmium can cause kidney damage and both are known carcinogens.
The pollution coming from these coal ash landfills can imperil groundwater, a finite natural resource.
The EPA says that among other coal ash pollutants in landfills, arsenic poses the greatest risk to human health and the environment. A 2010 risk assessment found that arsenic in groundwater underneath unlined units like those at D.B. Wilson typically exceed EPA’s cancer risk thresholds.
And while it’s safe to assume no one is drinking the water directly underneath these landfills, groundwater migrates over time.
Garry Igleheart says his farm is about a mile away from the plant, as the crow flies. The farm has been in his family for generations. He stopped using his private wells after coal mines all but drained the aquifer under his land.
Now because of the high rates he’s paying for water, Igleheart is considering pumping what’s left.
However, the groundwater contamination at the nearby power plant was news to Igleheart when contacted earlier this week by a WFPL News reporter; neither the state, nor Big Rivers had notified him.
“If they knew they was having groundwater problems it looks like they would have come and said ‘[if] you all have a well we need to test it,’ but I guess if you don’t want to find it, you don’t try to do that,” Igleheart said.
John Mura with the Energy & Environment Cabinet said it’s unlikely the Wilson plant’s contamination is impacting any private wells, but residents can request the cabinet to test the water for anyone who suspects their well is contaminated.
“We all want the same thing. We want clean, safe drinking water and the cabinet’s responsibility is to do whatever it can within the statutes and regulations to get that, and we think we are doing it,” Mura said.
Clean, Safe Drinking Water
The very same state inspector who questioned the results of the groundwater samples was the one who took photos of the black ooze seeping from the landfills. That black liquid contained arsenic nearly a thousand times the federal drinking water standards.
During the routine inspection in 2016 when the inspector found all that black ooze, he also tested the groundwater. Unsurprisingly, the well closest to the black stream of coal ash waste recorded arsenic levels more than twice federal drinking water standards. A second well on the far side of the opposite landfill demonstrated similar results. Cadmium, was also found at levels above drinking water standards.
Those wells have continued to show pollutants in the groundwater as Big Rivers and the state’s Energy & Environment Cabinet reached an agreement giving the company until 2020 to install collection and wastewater treatment systems to manage the leaks on the surface of the site.
The agreement was signed in May. In the meantime, Big Rivers was required to take action “as soon as reasonably feasible,” except that hasn’t happened.
Almost two years to the day after the inspector identified the toxic soup leaching from the landfill in 2016, he was back at the D.B. Wilson Power Plant for another routine inspection.
Again, the inspector found coal ash seeping out of the landfills, according to a violation notice. Big Rivers not only failed to treat the outbreaks at their source near the edge of at least one of the landfills, but also neglected to keep a variety of records documenting the extent of the problem.
In all, the inspector noted eight violations at the site outlining just how little Big Rivers had done to manage the pollution, records show. State officials say they have referred the violations to Kentucky’s Division of Enforcement, which could result in fines of up to $25,000 per day.
But even if the state isn’t calling on Big Rivers to clean up the groundwater, it looks like the federal Environmental Protection Agency will.
A few weeks after the inspector’s visit, in late October, Big Rivers posted a public notice on its website that the D.B. Wilson power plant had exceeded federal standards for pollution in the groundwater.
As a result, Cmar, with Earthjustice, said federal rules will require Big Rivers to clean up the groundwater.
“The positive side of this story is there is now a federal rule in place that’s going to require this company to clean up the pollution being detected in the groundwater,” Cmar said.
The rules give Big Rivers 90 days to figure out what they need to do to clean up the groundwater, before taking action. In the meantime, the utility is supposed to hold a public meeting.
Big Rivers would not comment on this story, but a spokeswoman said in an email it is “committed to complying with all environmental regulations.”