(IndyStar.com) - Near many of Indiana's coal-fired power plants, the groundwater is a toxic mix of arsenic, boron, cobalt, lead, molybdenum, radium and thallium, new Environmental Protection Agency data reveal.
Recently released reports, using data collected for the first time, raises questions about groundwater safety and is likely to prompt a debate about how the state with the nation's highest concentration of coal ash pits will react.
How far such pollutants have migrated from the power plants that created them, and the possible effects on neighboring residential wells have not been determined.
Danger zone: Indiana produces 6th most toxic chemicals in U.S.
Indiana's utility companies stress that the results are from wells directly next to the pits, and the companies have no reason to believe that their polluting pits present a threat to the state's waterways or public health.
"What I would want to know from a consumer perspective, is that this data does not reflect groundwater conditions farther away where many of our plant neighbors are located," said Angeline Protogere, spokeswoman for Duke Energy in Indiana. "We don't want people to panic and think this data is more than it is."
But they and environmental health advocates agree that the new data calls for more testing to determine the extent of the contamination and its potential dangers.
And, as regulators prepare for more study, some utilities already plan to close the controversial ash pits. That has some environmental advocates questioning whether capping the pits is an adequate remedy, as some utilities claim, or whether the material should be removed and sealed in pits lined with concrete or some other impermeable material.
"To sum up, we have seen enough to confirm that any place you leave coal ash with no liner underneath it," said Indra Frank, the Hoosier Environmental Council's environmental health director, "then the groundwater underneath gets contaminated."
Groundwater at as many as 14 power plants around the state — from IPL's Harding Street station in Indianapolis up to NIPSCO's Michigan City station and down to Duke's Gallagher station in New Albany — was found to have dangerous levels of pollution, according to an analysis by the Indianapolis Star.
A snapshot of numbers from Indiana reveals levels of arsenic more than 45 times the U.S. Safe Drinking Water Act standard at IPL's Harding Street station. Elsewhere in the state, levels of lead reached nearly three times the accepted guideline and levels of radium as many as eight times what is deemed safe for drinking water.
The contaminants present and their levels vary among the sites, but many of the contaminants are known to be carcinogenic, toxic to the nervous system and damaging to the heart, lungs and reproductive systems.
Coal ash contamination concerns
This is the first time groundwater testing has been required at all of Indiana's coal ash dumps, where millions of tons of coal ash sit in unlined pits.
Indiana has roughly 85 of these pits — more than any other state. And within them, more than 60 million cubic yards of coal ash is stored. That's enough to blanket both Marion and Hancock counties in an inch of black soot.
Scientists and environmentalists, until now, had only speculated that groundwater was likely polluted by the state's coal ash pits, the majority of which are unlined and are partially submerged in groundwater. Coal ash is most dangerous when wet, Duke University researcher Avner Vengosh told IndyStar. Similar to when tea steeps in water, the ash seeps toxins into the underlying water table — a chemical chamomile, of sorts.
The reports contained a few surprises, including high levels of radium and arsenic in some of the test wells, said Lisa Evans, senior counsel with Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law group.
Radium was detected at several sites, including Indiana-Kentucky Electric's Clifty Creek Station, in concentrations above the maximum level.
IPL's Harding Street station found levels of arsenic at 455 parts per billion in some of its monitoring wells. With the maximum level under the U.S. Safe Water Drinking Act set at 10 ppb, that's more than 45 times the limit.
Other stations across the state had arsenic levels ranging from three to 20 times the legal limits. Many plants also exceeded the 15 ppb action level or limit for lead, such as Duke's western Indiana Cayuga station by nearly three times. The U.S. Drinking Water health advisory level for molybdenum — known to damage the kidney, liver and reproductive system — was exceeded in multiple locations, by as many as 35 times.
"Indiana has, for many reasons, been the ground zero for us with coal ash problems," said Evans of her national organization. "It is one of the top coal ash-producing states and most of that ash is stored in unlined ponds, which is creating the problems we're now seeing."
Longtime Indianapolis resident Joyce Cravens almost laughed to herself when she learned of those results, in both validation and defeat.
She is no scientist but doesn't need to be to understand the new data, including for Indianapolis Power and Light's Harding Street station, which sits within a mile of her home.
"If they would have done it right in the first place and had these pits with liners like they require it now because they know it's bad, then we wouldn't be here," she said. "But this is proof positive, and something they will have to take seriously now … hopefully."
The Sunshine Gardens resident and her husband have lived for decades in the shadow of the southern Indianapolis power plant, where their water comes from a private well. Previous tests done by Marion County health officials showed elevated levels of boron in their well, but not above safe drinking water standards.
"I just want to know," Cravens added, "what is the next step?"
What are next steps?
The next step "will include more expansive groundwater sampling to determine the magnitude and extent of groundwater impact and corrective measures if necessary," said NIPSCO spokesman Nick Meyer.
Representatives with the utilities again stressed that these results are from wells next to the ponds and do not mean that drinking water protection standards are being violated or that a risk to the public’s drinking water exists.
"The initial data did show potential groundwater impacts very close to the company’s ash ponds," said Vectren Energy spokeswoman Natalie Hedde. The company is currently conducting the next phase of analysis, which involves "a review of potential alternative sources for groundwater constituents."
IPL is conducting a similar analysis, officials said.
"We are reviewing whether any possible indicator of potential impact is attributable to our ash ponds," said spokeswoman Claire Dalton, who added that IPL is continuing its groundwater monitoring, "or another source."
Representatives from Indiana-Kentucky Electric did not respond to requests for comment.
While environmental groups want to understand all possible contamination sources and agree that additional testing is critical, they said that the new data confirms utilities are part of the equation.
"It's incredibly important because this data allows us to hold utilities accountable for poisoning our groundwater in Indiana," said Wendy Bredhold of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign. "Once all these contaminants are in the groundwater all over the state as they are, then they start moving into our rivers."
The groundwater around these plants and the major waterways they border moves more fluidly, hydrogeology experts have said. There are private wells within a one-mile radius at nearly all of Indiana's coal ash sites, according to records at the state's Department of Natural Resources. Four power plants have more than 60 private wells within a mile.
"That's a real concern for those folks," Bredhold said.
Pam Thevenow with the Marion County Public Health Department encourages all residents with private wells to have them tested to ensure their water is safe.
The agency has completed periodic testing and testing on request of private wells in the Sunshine Gardens neighborhood near Harding Street over many years — and the results have shown some elevated levels of boron, a chemical known to be present in coal ash.
There is no evidence that the water is unsafe, according to Thevenow, the administrator of water quality and hazardous materials, but the potential health risks that these pits can pose depend on many factors. In some cases where test results showed evidence of contamination, water utilities have stepped in to provide clean water.
"So that is evidence that it can pose a health risk, and it has," Thevenow has told IndyStar. "Our role is important, but we are not the only player in the game because getting the source of the potential contamination, especially when it is moving offsite, is important to address and find a solution."
Rule rollbacks at risk
The federal government's role is somewhat in flux.
Just one day before the utilities turned in the monitoring results to the EPA, agency administrator Scott Pruitt announced his plan to overhaul the 2015 coal ash rule implemented under former President Barack Obama. This rule requires companies to continually inspect coal ash pits for leaks and monitor the surrounding areas for contamination.
Last May, however, the utilities told Pruitt these requirements were too expensive. Now, the EPA chief is proposing changes that would give states more control on how they dispose of coal ash, how often they test for contamination and how they would make that data public.
Rolling back the rule would return oversight of coal ash pits to the system that existed three years ago, under which a coal ash dam in Kingston, Tennessee, burst spewing toxic sludge, and a similar disaster wreaked havoc in North Carolina.
"That's why we needed this rule," Evans added, "so gutting it would have particularly disastrous consequences in large coal ash-producing states, states such as Indiana."
Indiana currently is working to develop and draft its own state program to regulate the handling and disposal of coal ash. Ryan Clem, a spokesman for the Department of Environmental Management, said the state's program intends to require facilities to monitor groundwater, as it does with all land disposal facilities.
IDEM is still in the process of reviewing the newly released data, according to Clem, to determine if there are exceedances of groundwater standards.
"When necessary," he said, "we will work with facilities to implement site-specific remedial actions."
Those actions could be cleanup or, in many situations, closure of the ash pits.
"The primary purpose of this phase of the federal groundwater monitoring program is to determine whether a utility needs to close unlined basins," said Duke's Protogere, adding that the utility has already committed to closing its ash ponds. "Ultimately closing ash basins will help protect and improve groundwater quality."
Several other utilities — including IPL, NIPSCO, and Vectren — said they are in the process of working to close their ash pits.
Some, such as Frank and Bredhold, are concerned that current proposals to keep the ash in place and put a cap over it — rather than excavating the ash to a dry, lined landfill — will not stop further contamination.
The utilities resist that method, saying it is cost-prohibitive, adding that the cap-in-place method is approved by the EPA and recognized as equally protective. But Frank said this data raises questions.
"It looks to me like we can't close the ash in place," she said, adding that several unlined sites around the country closed with a cap still indicate groundwater contamination. "Or if we do, we continue to leave our water resources at risk."
IDEM said it is still in the process of reviewing both the closure plans and this new data, and cannot say if or how the data will influence its decision on Duke and IPL's closure proposals.
Cravens, who lives near IPL's Harding Street station, said that above all else, she, her neighbors and communities across the country want help.
"The natural inclination when you first start something like this is to point fingers and to assign blame, but we are beyond that right now and the bottom line is need we to work together on this," she said. "We can't deny it anymore, so we just need to figure out a solution."