(INDYSTAR.com) - The coal plants that dot Indiana's landscape generate much more than electricity. They also produce toxic ash.
When coal is burned, it leaves behind ash that is filled with contaminants such as arsenic, chromium and boron that leach into nearby groundwater and waterways.
That ash is stored in massive pits, almost all of which are unlined and thus provide no barrier between the toxic waste and whatever else it may come into contact with. And Indiana has a lot of these pits — roughly 85 of them, which is more than any other state.
Just how much of this polluting powder is stored in these pits? More than 60 million cubic yards. That's enough to entirely blanket Marion County in an inch of black soot.
And then Hancock County, too.
It's a serious problem that needs to be dealt with soon. But it's how to solve that problem that is the crux of an intense debate happening across the nation — and right now in Indiana.
State regulators are for the first time trying to set policy that could have widespread repercussions not only for the owners of Indiana's nearly 20 active and retired coal plants and for the environment, but also for the quality of life for people who live in places such as Cayuga and Mt. Carmel and New Albany and right here in Indianapolis.
"For years, the environmental community has wanted stronger oversight of coal ash — we need to hold everyone accountable and we need to make sure human and environmental health are uppermost in the decisions being made,” said Tim Maloney, senior policy director with the Hoosier Environmental Council. “Those considerations need to be foremost in what happens here, and time will tell if they are or not.”
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Indiana Department of Environmental Management understand the importance and urgency. And so, too, do the plants' owners.
Recently passed federal regulations give states and the utilities a choice: The ash can either be left in the ground and covered with a cap, or the ash can be removed and placed in a landfill.
The debate over how to handle toxic ash has been spurred by a series of events. First, power plants are beginning to transition away from coal to other energy sources, forcing utilities to close up their coal ash pits. Second, during this conversion there were two high-profile ash spills in 2008 in Tennessee and 2014 in North Carolina that alarmed regulators. Third, the EPA responded by enacting in 2015 the nation's first-ever regulations on how to handle coal ash.
Utilities often choose the so-called "cap-in-place" method, which is cheaper. Many scientists and environmental groups, however, believe that option poses a serious threat to public health and the environment. Capping the ash pit, they contend, may contain the ash on top, but it is likely only a matter of time before the coal ash at the bottom of these unlined pits leaches into groundwater.
Because of that potential, other states are increasingly requiring utilities to put the ash in landfills or reuse it.
Now, it's Indiana's turn to decide how it will handle coal ash.
Two methods — equally protective?
The coal ash remediation plans for six plants — four operated by Duke Energy and two by Indianapolis Power & Light Co. — are under review by IDEM and will be Indiana's first decided under the new EPA rule.
The two utilities are proposing to close more than 20 pits across their plants. The majority, according to the submitted plans, are to be closed through the cap-in-place method. The remainder are to be closed through "closure by removal" — though for most such pits, the ash would be moved to and consolidated with a pit remaining in the ground.
Owen Schwartz, an environmental scientist with Duke Energy, told IndyStar that the company's plan would reduce the footprint of ash. The closure plans, he said, "are protective of the environment."
"Even the EPA in the federal rule," he said, "says that both clean closure and closure with waste in place can both be equally protective."
IPL was unable to make anyone available to speak. Company spokeswoman Claire Dalton did provide a comment in email that the utility understands concerns and considered various options, but "experts and the EPA have determined that closure in place is appropriate and can be equally protective to clean closure."
"It is easy to go down that road of complicated analysis. It all can get kind of mind-boggling, but at the end of the day it's just common sense," said Peter Harrison, an attorney with the global nonprofit Waterkeeper Alliance who specializes in coal ash and Indiana's plants.
"If you leave the stuff sitting in groundwater, literally abandoning the coal ash where it would just be stewing," he said, "you will have future contamination and you will pose a risk to human health and the environment."
Mark Hutson, with the environmental consultancy firm Geo-Hydro, Inc., is a geologist who has worked on coal ash pits for 10 years, during which time he has also consulted several utilities. He examined IPL's plans at the request of several state environmental groups.
One problem, Hutson said, is that utilities don't always know the depth of their ash pits. But what is known, he said, is that Indiana's water table is very shallow, sometimes only 15 or 20 feet below the surface. With most pits ranging from 15 to 50 feet deep, it seems almost inevitable that the coal ash will come in contact with water, he said — even with the cap.
"When our company first got into this line of work, the party line of the whole industry used to be 'coal ash, that's not a problem,' but they've stopped saying that," he said. "But they still don't want to actually propose a forever solution to what is a long-term problem."
Schwartz, the Duke environmental scientist, disagreed, adding that 30 years of post-closure monitoring is required to ensure the cap-in-place method is effective. If sample results do indicate continued contamination after the cap is installed, he said, then corrective action should be taken.
Sharing opinions and setting precedents
While utilities and environmental groups debate the issue, ultimately what matters most is what regulators decide.
IDEM staff attorney Stephen Thill and the agency's Land Quality Branch Chief Rebecca Joniskan both indicated to IndyStar that if the Duke and IPL plans meet the EPA test, they are "bound to approve" them.
But there is one open question, they said, on which the state agency's entire decision regarding the closure plans might rest. The EPA rule, which IDEM adopted in December, requires that if a utility chooses to use cap in place, it must ensure it is minimizing infiltration into the coal ash waste to the maximum degree possible.
"So the question is that if the impoundment is sitting in water," Thill asked, "does that constitute infiltration in terms of EPA's meaning of the rule?"
Environmental groups say the answer is a resounding yes. IDEM also has an opinion, Thill said, but he's not ready to disclose it. He also acknowledged he hopes the state will receive further guidance from the EPA.
This is Duke's Cayuga Generating Station along the Wabash river, as seen from the air, Thursday, Sept. 7, 2017. This is a coal ash pit. (Photo: Kelly Wilkinson/IndyStar)
That guidance could be evolving.
The EPA rule took effect in 2015 under then-President Barack Obama. But already, only two years later, industry officials have found a sympathetic ear in current EPA administrator Scott Pruitt. He announced this month that the agency will reconsider aspects of the current standards and safeguards — a process that could take years.
Despite uncertainty cast over the rule, the current regulation and state's preexisting guidance on coal ash pit closures say they must be done in a way that protects public health and the environment.
"There will be some precedents set here, so we want to make sure we gather all the information and make the best decision for protecting the environment and public health," Thill told IndyStar. "But we also want to make sure that the utilities can continue to operate in a way that is most cost effective for them and their consumers going forward."
Alphabet soup of chemicals
That precedent will matter to more than just utility companies and environmental groups.
Stella Harper, 59, has lived her entire life just a stone's throw from IPL's plant on South Harding Street, one of the six plants with pending closure plans. The utility's other submitted proposal is for its Eagle Valley plant in Morgan County. Both White River-hugging facilities stopped burning coal in 2016 and are converting to natural gas.
Duke's four plants with plans under review — Cayuga, Gibson, Gallagher and Wabash River generating stations — dot Indiana's western and southern borders along the Wabash and Ohio rivers.
Harper remembers as a young girl being stopped by the incoming coal trains on their way to Harding Street. Those long waits were her source of greatest frustration with the plant. Then.
"None of us knew about the coal ash ponds; we didn't even know they existed," said the Sunshine Gardens resident who relies on wells for her water. "We didn't give a thought about the plant being there and the problems it could cause other than the air pollution."
In the 1960s and '70s, that was the main concern.
Rather than white cotton balls, the clouds escaping the stacks were dark and gray as if warning of storms and danger. There was danger in the fly ash, or the powderlike particles produced when burning coal, dirtying the air.
But major amendments made to the Clean Air Act in 1970 mitigated those dangers. Sort of, said longtime Lafayette resident Rae Schnapp.
"It's a Catch-22, because it used to be that the plants didn't have to scrub or clean their smoke and now they do," explained Schnapp, a scientist and the Wabash River's riverkeeper as part of the Waterkeeper Alliance network. "But that just transfers the contaminants from the air into a solid that is now contaminating our waters."
Coal ash releases an alphabet soup of chemicals and contaminants: A for arsenic, B for boron, C for chromium all the way down to M for manganese and S for selenium.
Some of the names might be familiar from the sides of cereal boxes, but the concentration levels coming out of coal pits can pose serious health risks, HEC Health Director Indra Frank said. Arsenic and chromium are known carcinogens, for example, and selenium can be particularly dangerous to fish and wildlife and lead to mutations if unchecked.
Coal ash is its most dangerous when wet, Duke University researcher Avner Vengosh explained. Similar to when tea steeps in water, the toxins seep from the ash and comingle with the underlying water table.
"Because of the nature of unlined coal ash impoundments, there's no question it would be leaking contamination into the subsurface," said Vengosh, who has extensively studied and authored a report on coal ash pits. "We need to study the long-term impacts of the coal ash and contamination and the human health risks associated."
The utility giants' own groundwater testing at their plants reveal concentrations of common coal ash contaminants at levels above EPA standards and advisories, according to records from IDEM and the Marion County Public Health Department.
At IPL's Harding Street Station, for example, the company reported in 1989 that it identified high levels of arsenic, mercury and boron exceeding what is considered safe. In 2014, IDEM sampled water discharge originating from a groundwater well located immediately south of the coal ash pits and drawing from the same aquifer that lies beneath the unlined lagoons.
The sample results for boron were 1.4 times the EPA's child health advisory, according to the Hoosier Environmental Council.
In a 2014 email to the Council, IDEM Commissioner Bruno Pigott said, "The amounts were not significant enough to pose a reasonable potential to exceed any applicable water quality standards for the White River, but were enough above expected background [levels] to make it a likely assumption that these pollutants are coming from IPL."
Harper, whose Sunshine Gardens home sits downstream from Harding Street, no longer trusts her well water. Bottles and gallons of water have become permanent fixtures on counters and tucked in corners.
Similar to Harding Street, monitoring at the five other plants has shown signs of coal ash contamination. And each is within several miles of drinking water supplies.
In fact, Duke Energy chose to provide municipal water to some households near its Cayuga and Gibson stations "in the abundance of caution" after sampling identified groundwater impact, according to Duke Indiana spokeswoman Angeline Protogere.
Critics, however, contend that the plans submitted by Duke and IPL to deal with coal ash represent the polar opposite of acting "in the abundance of caution."
Instead, they contend, this has far more to do with acting in the best interest of their bottom line.
Few definitive numbers exist on what the different closure methods might cost. Some estimates suggest that IPL's cap-in-place closures could cost around $15 million to $20 million each, with an additional $2 million or $3 million for the post-closure maintenance and monitoring.
Industry experts, however, say closure by removal can cost as much as four or five times more because it includes the cost to excavate the ash and often to construct a lined landfill to dispose of the waste and the means of transportation to get it there.
IDEM no doubt will consider the impacts on industry, the environment and consumers. But if Indiana is looking for a blueprint, environment attorney Frank Holleman suggests state regulators take a good, long look at his native South Carolina.
In this coastal state, every single coal ash pit has been, is being or will be excavated. What's more, Holleman said, is that the utilities are completing the work in less time and with less money than originally anticipated.
"Are the Indiana utilities saying they aren't as smart or as capable of doing that?" Holleman asked. "It's hard for me to believe South Carolina utilities have the monopoly on the knowledge and the wherewithal to excavate and remove coal ash."
Santee Cooper Electric, one utility leading the way in South Carolina, originally considered a cap-in-place closure, according to spokeswoman Mollie Gore. After encountering significant opposition, the company pursued an alternative: excavating the coal ash and recycling it.
Coal ash concrete is formed when ash stored in ponds is used in place of cement, according to industry veteran Jimmy Knowles. The ash not only produces a stronger product, but its toxic properties are "locked up" in the concrete and unable to escape or leach out, said the vice president of government and environmental relations at SEFA, a company that has pioneered coal ash concrete technology.
It has one added bonus: The ash now has value.
Concrete producers will pay for it, which significantly reduces costs to excavate it. Although the price still does not draw level with cap in place, Knowles said the beneficial use option often rings up at only one and a half or twice the cost.
Gore said this option was a triple threat for Santee Cooper. It kept costs down for customers, it created new jobs for the industry and it removed risk for the environment by getting the ash out of the ground.
And, in fact, coal ash concrete has been used in Indiana on various road projects, according to state industry expert Mike LaGrange — but the ash did not come from Hoosier plants, he said.
North Carolina's regulators also have required removal in some instances, including as part of a settlement after a spill in 2014 released nearly 39,000 tons of coal ash in the Dan River. The plant operator? Duke Energy, which under the settlement must now remove ash at eight of its 14 plants.
But, in truth, Duke is operating under a different set of rules in Indiana.
"The significant difference between us and the Carolinas is that they have passed state level laws that are more stringent than the federal regulations," said Joniskan, IDEM's Land Quality branch chief.
If the legislature chose, Indiana could also be more stringent. But until then, it is working with the federal rule. IDEM has no set timeline on which it must approve or reject the Duke and IPL plans. The agency currently is seeking further information and clarification from the utilities on the proposed closures.
"It's really frightening and disheartening how a company like Duke, the very same company we're looking at here in Indiana, is minimizing its risks in other states whether through choice or force," said Jenny Cassel, a coal ash attorney with Earthjustice. "But then we are leaving Indiana residents and their waterways with lower requirements to protect them and higher risks."
Harper said she and her south-side neighbors think about the risks all the time.
They think about it when they get in the shower, when they wash the dishes, when they water the vegetable gardens, when they pour a drink for the animals. Almost every aspect of life can be changed by water, she said, especially contaminated water.
It's like a somber cloud has anchored itself above the small neighborhood, Harper said.
"There haven't been many bright, happy days in Sunshine Gardens lately."