The Environmental Protection Agency released guidance to clarify how utilities should handle toxic coal ash waste. Coal ash contains heavy metals like mercury, cadmium and arsenic that can seep into groundwater and pollute drinking water sources.
Environmental advocates say by clarifying the federal coal ash rule, the EPA is ensuring safer coal ash disposal in Indiana.
Among other things, the EPA said utilities can’t allow closed coal ash ponds to come in contact with groundwater or rely on dilution in the water alone to control pollution.
Indra Frank is the director of environmental health and water policy with the Hoosier Environmental Council. She said the agency also clarified which coal ash ponds fall under the rule — and now more will have to comply with it. That includes two ponds at Duke Energy’s former R. Gallagher coal plant near New Albany.
“Here in Indiana, some of our utilities have convinced IDEM that they could dodge parts of the federal coal ash rule, by misinterpreting it. The EPA has now issued clarifications and that's no longer going to be possible," Frank said.
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Duke Energy Indiana issued an email statement regarding the two R. Gallagher ponds.
"While we believe our work was done in full compliance with regulations and industry standards at the time, we have a shared interest with federal and state regulators to ensure customers and communities continue to remain protected in the future. We welcome the opportunity to work with the EPA to determine our next steps," the statement said.
The utility also said that there are no drinking water wells near the retired coal plant and that it's monitoring wells show Duke's closure work is improving the groundwater.
The EPA also denied Indiana-Kentucky Electric Corporation’s request for more time to close unlined coal ash ponds at its Clifty Creek plant in Jefferson County. If the plant can’t find a home for the waste in time, it may have to temporarily shut down.
The advocacy group Just Transition NWI also responded to the EPA's clarification in an emailed statement.
"In Michigan City, IDEM approved NIPSCO’s closure plan to remove a mere 10 percent of the utility’s coal ash, leaving the remaining tons of ash in place. This continues to leak into Lake Michigan and poses an imminent danger of a full-blown spill," the Just Transition NWI said in a statement. "That’s why the EPA must mandate immediate clean closures across the country. Only then can our communities find real relief."
The Indiana Department of Environmental Management declined to be interviewed because the agency is involved in current litigation regarding coal ash pond closures at both R. Gallagher and Clifty Creek.
Indiana Environmental reporting is supported by the Environmental Resilience Institute, an Indiana University Grand Challenge project developing Indiana-specific projections and informed responses to problems of environmental change.