Unregulated Coal Ash Ponds Pose Environmental Threat

There are 74 ponds that contain coal ash, a byproduct of coal fired power plants in Indiana, which is more than any other state in the country.

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

In the neighborhood of East Mt. Carmel, residents like to live a simple country life.

They fish in the nearby Wabash River, they get around on their dirt bikes and ATVs and go to church.

But several years ago the quality of life here was threatened. East Mt Carmel is located just across the street from the third largest coal-fired power plant in the world.

The Gibson Duke plant burns approximately 8 million tons of coal each year.

What Coal Ash Is And How It’s Regulated

There are many byproducts but coal ash or fly ash has the most potential for contamination.

“This is generated in what we call a pulverized coal burner which takes very small particles of coal, burns them at high temperature, typically over 1,100 degrees Celsius,” says Tracy Branam, a geochemist with the Indiana Geological Survey, says as he holds a glass container filled with fly ash.

Duke stores more of it at this plant than any other place in the state: almost 17 million tons, and that figure doesn’t include other ash stored on site, including ash in landfills and structural fills

One of the most common ways is simply to dig a large pit and store it on the power plant site.

And sometimes water is added to the ash so it can be moved around through pipes and stored in ponds. There are 74  of these ponds in Indiana, which is more than any other state in the country.

Screen Shot 2014-05-09 at 4.09.45 PM

Photo: Scott Carmichael

There are 74 coal ash ponds in Indiana - more than any other state in the country.

They can dwarf the size of other man-made reservoirs, but unlike typical landfills, they’re almost entirely unregulated.

They don’t have to be lined like municipal waste landfills so the ash can and does leach into the surrounding area and water table.

In most cases, power plant owners are supposed to get a permit from the Department of Natural Resources if they want to build a coal ash pond on their property.

But the reality is that rarely happens.

“Some of the dams in the state in the ash ponds have gone through our permit process. I would say the majority of them have not,” says Kenneth Smith, the assistant director with the DNR’s water division. “Some are inspected that we had been aware of through going through the permit process. There are likely others out there that should have gone through the process but didn’t.”

When asked why the companies haven’t gone through the process, Smith said the companies’ officials would have to answer that.

“Why they would do that I don’t know,” he said.

Smith says a recent survey from the EPA showed several  power companies had built coal ash ponds without seeking a permit.

“There were many on that list that were ones that were not in our inspection program they had never gone through our permit process,” Smith says.

Smith says the DNR doesn’t strictly enforce the permit process for coal ash ponds because unlike levees and dams, most coal ash ponds don’t pose a high risk of loss of life if they were to breach.

“Clearly we have to prioritize. Just like, policemen on a road that have the need to use discretion. Not every single person that speeds winds up getting pulled over by a police car,” he says.

The DNR has not taken any enforcement action against the owners of the plants that are not in compliance.

If a coal ash pond fails, the results can be disastrous.

North Carolina Plant Demonstrates Risk Of Coal Ash Ponds

In February a massive breach at a Duke Energy Plant in North Carolina dumped 39,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River. While no one was killed, environmentalists say the ecological disaster that resulted is immeasurable.

“After the North Carolina incident, and we take that very seriously, we immediately brought in an outside engineering firm to do an inspection,” says Angeline Protogere, a Duke Energy spokeswoman based in Indiana.

Duke operates a plant with very similarly dangerous conditions to the one in North Carolina.

Just north of Terre Haute is the Duke Wabash River Station where, like in North Carolina, a large stormwater line under coal ash ponds and empties into the Wabash River.

Stay tuned for part two of this report to learn more about the Terre Haute facility and the problems the residents of East Mt. Carmel have faced because of coal ash.

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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