Environment

Ashes from the coal burned to fuel America’s appetite for energy are buried in unlined pits and landfills scattered across the country.

Now, first the first time, the American public is learning the impacts these coal ash dumps are having on the environment. The results point to widespread contamination.

And Kentucky’s Ghent Generating Station — located along the Ohio River an hour north of Louisville — ranks among the 10 worst contaminated coal ash sites in the country, according to a report released Monday from the Environmental Integrity Project, an environmental advocacy group.

For the report, researchers reviewed groundwater data published by utilities at 265 coal plants and offsite coal ash disposal areas covered under the Environmental Protection Agency’s 2015 Coal Ash Rule.

Results from the first round of testing reveal unsafe levels of toxic chemicals leaching into the groundwater at 91 percent of coal ash dumps around the country, according to the report.

In addition, the researchers found more than half of the sites demonstrated unsafe levels of the cancer-causing pollutant arsenic. As much as 60 percent showed unsafe levels of lithium. And nearly all included unsafe levels of at least four toxic chemicals often found in coal ash.

“The basic answer I like to give is that there are carcinogens, there are neurotoxins and there are other pollutants that cause other health risks and ecological risks,” said Abel Russ, an attorney with the Environmental Integrity Project and a former toxicologist.

The ecological impacts of coal ash pollution may vary from site to site. In the near term, they  pose a risk to aquatic life and a residents using private wells, but coal ash contamination presents an even greater threat to future generations, he said.

“You’re basically taking a whole bunch of drinking water aquifers out of commission and they are not usable as drinking water anymore and that’s a big problem for kids, grand kids and so on,” Russ said.

Contamination At Ghent Station

WFPL News first reported evidence of groundwater contamination at 14 Kentucky power plants last June after conducting its own analysis of the data provided by utilities under the EPA’s 2015 Coal Ash Rule.

That analysis found radium levels 33 times federal drinking water standards at Kentucky Utilities’ Ghent Generating Station north of Carrollton. Testing also revealed elevated levels of arsenic, lithium, antimony and beryllium, among other contaminants.

Ghent Generating Station is a sprawling plant that consumes about 5.5 million tons of coal ash annually. It began operating in 1973. There are nearly 800 acres of coal ash disposal sites on the property, as much land as 600 football fields.

After looking at similar sites across the country, the Environmental Integrity Project listed Ghent Station among the 10 worst-contaminated sites in the country.

The report found all of the ash ponds at the site are unlined. At least one ash pond is in direct contact with groundwater and “will virtually guarantee ongoing groundwater pollution for generations to come,” according to the report.

“The Ghent plant is like a lot of other plants in the country in that it has a really bad contamination problem and yet the owner is planning to leave all of the coal ash right where it is,” Russ said.

Among other pollutants contaminating groundwater at the site, Russ pointed to the “incredibly high” levels of lithium found in the groundwater, as well as sulfate, radium and arsenic.

“Basically, the water is very, very, very unsafe,” he said.

Louisville Gas & Electric spokeswoman Natasha Collins says the utility is reviewing the report and is unable to comment on it in the interim. Ghent is among other LG&E plants with ash ponds that are scheduled to be close and capped, she said.

“Across our operating and now-retired power plant fleet, approximately one-half of our impoundments are closed, and the other half are either under contract for closure or in the initial commercial phase of closure,” Collins said. “We take aggressive measures to protect our communities’ land and water resources, and we continually invest in our facilities to comply with local, state and federal environmental regulations.”

Ongoing Testing For An Ongoing Threat

In November, Louisville Gas & Electric published results from a second round of testing that found groundwater pollution underneath the Trimble County Generating Station, Mill Creek power plant in Louisville, the E.W. Brown power plant in Mercer County and the Ghent power plant in Carroll County.

At the Trimble County Generating Station (another power plant along the Ohio River upstream from Louisville), LG&E has said it is already working with a contractor to identify cleanup options.

At other sites, LG&E says it’s looking for possible alternative sources that could account for the groundwater pollution.

Utilities across the country are expected to begin publishing a second round of testing in the coming months.

Every power company 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, under the Trump Administration the EPA extended deadlines for power companies to clean up pollution leaching out of coal ash disposal sites. Plants received an additional 18 months to close their coal ash ponds if additional testing finds contamination.

Still, LG&E plans to remove the water from, cap and close all of its ash ponds by 2023.

But based on the Environmental Integrity Project’s report, that might not be enough to prevent groundwater contamination. The report found that ash ponds are more likely to leach pollution into groundwater than landfills, but 76 percent of ash landfills still did the same.

The report concludes that eventually, the country has to confront its history of coal ash pollution. Researchers recommend all coal ash dumps be regulated, de-watered and monitored.

“It’s generations before this stuff gets to its worst offsite impact and more generations after that before it improves if you just leave it the way it is,” Russ said. “The thing to do to prevent that from happening is to address it right now before the toxic pollutants get out of the ash and into the groundwater.”

This post has been updated. 

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