Environment

Kentucky power plants will have more time to clean up pollution leaking out of coal ash landfills and ponds under new federal rules.

Last month, A WFPL News and Ohio Valley ReSource analysis found contaminated groundwater at 14 Kentucky power plants. That’s every power plant covered under the federal rules.

The pollution comes from the piles of ash leftover from burning coal for energy. In Kentucky, the ash is stored in landfills and ponds that are mostly unlined — meaning there isn’t any sort of barrier between the coal ash and the soil.

Now, those plants will have an additional 18 months to close their coal ash ponds if additional testing finds contamination, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s new rules for coal combustion residuals finalized Monday.

The EPA estimates these and other changes will save utilities between $15 million and $31.4 million per year.

Advocates for the changes say the extension is necessary to comply with new regulations, according to EPA comments. They say the old testing schedule didn’t give utilities enough time to comply before they had to take action on any pollution they found.

Louisville Gas & Electric says the new rules may actually help environmental agencies.

“The extended timeline is appropriate for some states because it allows their environmental agencies more time to develop, establish and receive approval for their programs,” said Liz Pratt, LG&E spokeswoman.

But environmental advocates say the longer utilities wait, the harder it is to clean up the pollution.

Any delay just gives more time for these plumes of pollution to further contaminate groundwater, said Abel Russ, an attorney with the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project.

“It’s another year and a half for impoundments that are known to be leaking and contaminating the groundwater to continue to operate,” he said.  “And so any delay is troubling and will certainly increase risk to human health, even if it’s a subtle increase.”

Utilities are currently conducting a second round of groundwater testing to verify high concentrations of heavy metals including arsenic, chromium and mercury. The new rules also add new federal standards for lead, lithium, cobalt and molybdenum.

Every utility that finds pollution exceeding federal limits will have to close the associated coal ash pond. Landfills will have to go through corrective action, but may not have to close.

However,  there’s already evidence they’re leaching into groundwater at multiple Kentucky sites.

  • At the Mill Creek Generating Station in Louisville, operated by Louisville Gas & Electric, the WFPL News analysis found monitoring wells that contained up to 40 times more arsenic than federal drinking water standards.
  • At the Paradise Fossil Plant, located on the Green River in Muhlenberg County, testing found levels of arsenic more than eight times higher than federal drinking water standards. That plant is owned by the Tennessee Valley Authority: a 2008 coal ash spill at the utility’s Kingston Fossil Plant spilled more than a billion gallons of slurry onto nearby land and into waterways.
  • At Kentucky Utilities’ Ghent Generating Station north of Carrollton, radium levels at a groundwater well near the ash pond were 33 times the drinking water standard. In a well near the ash landfill, the radium levels were 10 times the standard. Tests done at Ghent also revealed elevated levels of arsenic, antimony and beryllium, among other contaminants.

Under the old rules, utilities had until April 30, 2019, to close the leaking coal ash pond or landfill.

Now, utilities have until October 31, 2020.

They can choose to enclose the ash in place or remove it. If they close in place, the utility has to remove the water, install a cover and monitor the groundwater for at least 30 years.

At least four of Kentucky’s largest utilities have already committed to closing their ash ponds and moving to dry storage, including Louisville Gas & Electric/Kentucky Utilities, Duke Energy, American Electric Power and Tennessee Valley Authority.

this post has been updated.

 

Ryan Van Velzer is WFPL's Energy and Environment Reporter.