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Contamination From Coal Ash Puts Drinking Water At Risk

One of the main byproducts of burning coal, power companies usually store coal ash on site in largely unregulated ponds and pits.

This is the second of a two-part series on coal ash ponds in Indiana.

In 2007 and again in 2008, 30 million gallons of water and coal ash spilled into the White River when levees at the Indianapolis Power and Light Eagle Valley Station failed.

Standing downstream from the site of the spills, Sierra Club spokesperson Jodi Perras says the damage was far reaching.

“People say ‘So what.’ Well, tell that to the people who live right downstream here who probably fish in this river,” Perras says. “You know 30 million gallons of toxic coal ash – that’s poisoning the river, that’s poisoning the fish that live here and poisons people who eat it.”

How Coal Ash Affected One Neighborhood’s Drinking Water

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Photo: BlairPhotoEVV

Contaminants from an unlined coal ash basin at this Duke Energy power plant in Southwestern Indiana ruined the drinking water of a nearby neighborhood.

At the Duke Energy Gibson Plant in the southern part of the state there was no breach. Instead, the contamination happened over time as coal ash that was stored in a massive unlined pit at the Duke plant leached into the water table.

Bruce Palin is the Assistant Commissioner for Land Quality at the Indiana Department of Environmental Management. He says Duke’s own monitoring wells showed signs of contamination, which they reported to the state.

The water was crystal clear, but when the power plant came in, it gradually started becoming worse. The water would actually turn brown and at the last, it started turning black.” - Mt. Carmel Resident

“Several of their surface impoundments were leaching Boron from them and were impacting drinking water wells nearby,” Palin says.

Wayne Byrns’ mother and father lived across from the plant in the neighborhood of East Mount Carmel for a decade.

“When we started out the water was crystal clear — beautiful drinking water — I mean it tasted really really good – some of the best water in the county,” Byrns says of moving his parents to the area.  “When the power plant came in, it gradually started becoming worse. You could smell it a little bit and then it got to where it would smell like rotten eggs. And the water would actually turn brownish and at the last – it started turning black.”

In response, Duke Energy began supplying the residents of East Mt. Carmel with bottled water. Eventually the company paid to build a water line from a nearby town to supply the neighborhood with clean drinking water.

But Byrns thinks the damage was already done.

His mother died of kidney failure and his father shortly after of cancer. Byrns says Duke admitted the coal ash basin near his mother’s house was unlined.

He tried to sue Duke to get the company to line the basins and conduct more testing but was unsuccessful.

“You know they have so many lawyers and they have so many politicians backing them – I don’t think that just the average person can do anything about it,” Byrns says. “Matter of fact I just about gave up.”

Converting From Coal Ash Ponds To Dry-Storage

Duke officials say they recently performed an internal survey of their ash basins and are taking steps to deal with coal ash in a safer way like converting to dry handling.

“When your ash is dry handled and that is the method that we are converting to across our Indiana sytem,” says Duke Energy spokesperson Angeline Protogere. “When your ash is dry handled, it is stored in a lined land fill. The ash basins, with water, are different than that.”

Protegere says Duke monitors its coal ash ponds and the surrounding groundwater and regularly checks the structural safety of its levees and dams.

But dry storage pits are still susceptible to leaching from rain water.

Tracy Branam of the Indiana Geological has been conducting research that shows covering coal ash impoundments or storing it underground in coal mines is actually safer.

“Rain water leaches out more than actual ground water does – that’s what we’ve found so far,” Branam says. “A lot of people used to say ‘Don’t put it below the water table because you’ll get a lot of leaching out’ but we’re not finding that. We’re finding you get more leached out from rain water then you get when you put it below the water table.”

Branam says the key is to not store too much coal ash in one site, and to find other uses for the byproduct.

“That’s why beneficial use is important,” he says. “Because the less you have to put back, the more you can beneficially use, then the better off you are.”

Beneficial Re-Use Industry Seeks To Keep Coal Ash Out Of Landfills

The beneficial re-use industry recycles coal ash into things like roofing shingles, wall board and concrete. The coal ash is used as a filler to make the concrete stronger.

Beneficial use is important. Because the less you have to put back, the more you can beneficially use, then the better off you are.” – Tracy Branam

Randy Lawrence is the Operations Manager for Irving Materials Inc., which has many of the state highway contracts in Indiana. He says IMI concrete used in the new segment of I-69 is full of fly ash.

“Fly ash and cement together become a cementatious material,” Lawrence says. “That in turn, is the glue – is what makes concrete become hard.”

Environmental advocates like beneficial re-use, but they say it only deals with a small amount of the millions of tons of coal ash produced every year.

States Still Waiting On Action From The EPA

The EPA does not designate coal ash as a hazardous material and there is no federally designated limit for safe levels of Boron in drinking water.

But a recent court decision may force the EPA to develop long-awaited federal guidelines for coal ash ponds that state agencies like DNR and IDEM could enforce.

The Hoosier Environmental Council recently came out with a study outlining issues they think should be addressed in regard to coal ash in Indiana.

But until then the ash pile in at the Gibson Plant continues to grow. And Wayne Byrns fears that not enough is being done to prevent future water contamination.

“My mother and father had been drinking that for years,” Byrns says. “I’m not saying that’s what killed my mother, but I don’t think it really did her any good.”

Jimmy Jenkins

Jimmy Jenkins is a multimedia journalist for WFIU and WTIU news. A native of Terre Haute, he is a masters student at the Indiana University School of Journalism and is proud to be a part of the public broadcasting stations he listened to and watched since he was a child. Follow him on Twitter @newsjunkyjimmy.

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