Electricity from coal-burning plants has powered Indiana's homes, building and factories for decades. But the bills soon may be coming due for a long-ignored byproduct of that process.
Though the air pollution produced by coal-fired plants has long been limited by rules to protect the environment, the disposal of coal ash, another potentially harmful byproduct, was virtually ignored by regulators. Coal ash contains an array of dangerous chemicals, but most plants captured the ash and flushed it into artificial holding ponds or landfills, which presumably kept the chemicals contained. Indiana, as a major industrial state with high electricity use, leads the nation in the number of coal-ash ponds.
Though there are no fly-ash disposal sites in northeast Indiana, the coal plant operated by American Electric Power in the southern Indiana town of Rockport supplies a portion of the electricity delivered by I&M, the AEP subsidiary that serves northeast Indiana.
Growing concern that dangerous chemicals including arsenic, radium and boron might be seeping into groundwater and nearby drinking-water wells from those holding ponds led the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to issue its first regulations on coal ash in 2015. Though that represented a step forward, environmental groups challenged the agency in court, contending the new rules should apply tocoal-ash disposal sites that have been closed down as well as those still operating.
In August, a federal appeals court agreed with the environmental groups, which included the Hoosier Environmental Council. “That was important for Indiana,” said Tim Maloney, a senior policy director for the council, “because we may have up to two dozen of those legacy ponds that were not covered under the federal rule.”
The regulatory outlook is still murky. The Trump administration plans to delay implementation of the new rules, though that decision is also being challenged in federal court by environmental groups.
Meanwhile, tests by Indiana utilities required by the EPA have indicated contaminants are leaking from many of the coal-ash disposal sites, Maloney said. “These latest filings by the utilities are just confirming information everybody already knows,” he said. “Anywhere you have an unlined coal-ashimpoundment, there's going to be groundwater contamination.”
According to the Indianapolis Star, two Indiana utilities, Duke Energy and NISPCO, have already filed test results indicating they have groundwater pollution violations and have offered plans for cleanup to the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, which is charged with enforcing the federal rules. Other utilities, including I&M, are still reviewing tests and putting together compliance plans.
In an email Thursday, Melissa McHenry, AEP's director of external communications, said the federal regulations apply to both a holding pond and a landfill for fly-ash disposal at the Rockport plant. AEP plans to close part of the “pond complex” by October 2020, McHenry said. But tests so far indicate “that the Rockport ash storage sites are not impacting groundwater quality.”
AEP plans to release additional test results by the end of February, and will take additional steps if necessary, McHenry wrote.
With testing, legal and regulatory issues yet to be resolved, it's too early to know how much effort it will take to clean up the state's coal-ash storage facilities. But Indiana needs to protect drinking water and nearby waterways.