For decades, Kentucky’s own coal stoked the fires that generated most of its electricity. And while some of those power plants have shut down or switched to natural gas, their legacy remains today in the leftover coal ash that’s stored all over the commonwealth.
Now, new data show the coal ash buried in landfills and submerged in ponds at many of these sites has contaminated local groundwater.
This new look at coal ash pollution comes from the power plants themselves; they were recently required to make public a first round of groundwater monitoring reports under new federal rules.
A WFPL News and Ohio Valley ReSource analysis found contaminated groundwater at 14 Kentucky power plants. That’s every power plant covered under the new federal rules.
Those pollutants include known carcinogens like arsenic and radium.
Seven of the 14 sites covered under the EPA rules exceeded federal drinking water standards for arsenic. Tests at three sites showed radium levels above drinking water standards.
Environmental advocates say the first round of data demonstrates contamination is ubiquitous, not just in Kentucky, but at coal ash sites around the country.
“This is one of the things about the rule that has me bashing my head against the wall because everyone can look at the data and know that there’s contamination,” said Abel Russ with the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project. “There’s unsafe levels of arsenic, unsafe levels of cobalt, lithium whatever it is. It’s as plain as day, but the way the rules are written, they don’t have to do anything about it yet.”
Industry representatives first informed Kentucky officials of the results at a meeting in May, said John Mura, spokesman for Kentucky’s Energy and Environment Cabinet. Representatives from six of the seven utilities covered under this rule have told the state they need to do additional testing — as outlined under EPA rules — before taking action.
“Based on the data we have, we have no indication that there is any imminent danger to human health at any of the sites right now,” Mura said.
Identifying The Threat
A year ago, it was clear that there was a problem near Big Rivers Electric Corporation’s Green Station in Henderson County. The station sits on the banks of the Green River. And directly underneath the plant’s massive coal ash landfill, the banks were leaching orange liquid.
Around the same time — June 2017 — state inspectors from the Division of Waste Management visited Green station’s landfill. In a letter sent to Big Rivers in January 2018, Solid Waste Branch Manager Danny Anderson summarized that trip’s findings: regulators found multiple places where contaminated water was flowing out of the landfill. Some of it was going into ditches, and some straight into the Green River.
“The available groundwater data and the presence of high-flow leachate outbreaks present at the facility indicate a significant potential threat to human health and the environment from this facility,” Anderson wrote.
At another Big Rivers plant, aerial photos suggest coal ash pollution could have been flowing into an unlined ditch for more than a decade. It contained 980 times more arsenic than the federal standard. And in Central Kentucky, coal ash pollution flowed into a popular recreational lake for years from a Kentucky Utilities plant.
These cases and others show the Kentucky Department for Environmental Protection was already aware of potential problems at several power plants. But the new groundwater monitoring data, provided by the utilities themselves, suggests coal ash pollution is far more widespread.
WFPL News and OVR analyzed groundwater monitoring reports for all 14 power plants with coal ash waste sites covered under the EPA rules in Kentucky. For each site, reporters averaged the groundwater samples collected by utilities and compared them to background levels. This is a simplification of the complex statistical analyses used by utility companies.
Every power plant showed signs of contamination from multiple pollutants. In some cases, the chemicals found in the groundwater were exponentially higher than background levels.
Contamination Across The Commonwealth
Most of Kentucky’s coal ash sites were built in the 60s, 70s and 80s. Most are unlined — meaning there isn’t any sort of barrier between the coal ash and the soil.
Boron, sulfate and chloride are among the common contaminants. These chemicals are also sort of the “canaries in the coal mine” — the first contaminants to appear in the water column. Though it’s currently included on a list of less harmful pollutants, the EPA recently proposed reclassifying boron. In acute doses, it can cause rashes, nausea, ulcers, vomiting and diarrhea, according to the EPA.
But when it comes to the most harmful contaminants — carcinogens like arsenic and radium — there’s evidence they’re leaching into groundwater at multiple Kentucky sites.
- At the Mill Creek Generating Station in Louisville, operated by Louisville Gas & Electric, the WFPL News analysis found monitoring wells that contained up to 40 times more arsenic than federal drinking water standards.
- At the Paradise Fossil Plant, located on the Green River in Muhlenberg County, testing found levels of arsenic more than eight times higher than federal drinking water standards. That plant is owned by the Tennessee Valley Authority: a 2008 coal ash spill at the utility’s Kingston Fossil Plant spilled more than a billion gallons of slurry onto nearby land and into waterways.
- At Kentucky Utilities’ Ghent Generating Station north of Carrollton, radium levels at a groundwater well near the ash pond were 33 times the drinking water standard. In a well near the ash landfill, the radium levels were 10 times the standard. Tests done at Ghent also revealed elevated levels of arsenic, antimony and beryllium, among other contaminants.
Abel Russ said generally, the bigger the site, the more extensive the groundwater contamination. He has studied coal ash waste sites at several states around the country while working for the Environmental Integrity Project.
From what Russ has seen, the signs of coal ash contamination in Kentucky are indicative of what’s happening around the country.
“Basically anywhere you’ve buried coal ash in the ground without a good liner, it will have leaked into the groundwater, so I don’t think Kentucky is better or worse from that perspective,” Russ said.
Michael Winkler is the Environmental Program Manager for Louisville Gas & Electric and Kentucky Utilities. He said the company has always known that water from unlined coal ash ponds can diffuse into the groundwater at sites like Mill Creek.
“So we’ve had [monitoring wells] that indicate different levels of metals in there, but again the groundwater flow has always been directly towards the river and all the river samples have indicated that’s always trace amounts, so we are not impacting any waters in such a way to cause a problem for human health,” Winkler said.
TVA spokesman Scott Brooks said the results are preliminary and do not mean there are issues with groundwater protection or impacts to drinking water.
“Under the [Coal Combustion Residual] rule it requires further study to evaluate and to characterize what is going on at each of those locations,” Brooks said.
Other utilities that spoke with WFPL News echoed that: the EPA designed the first round of testing to look for statistically significant increases of contaminants in groundwater. If contamination is found, the EPA rules require a second round of testing to validate the threat.
Already, six of the seven utilities in Kentucky that fall under EPA rules said they will do that additional testing after finding evidence of contamination.
But the preliminary nature of these initial results hasn’t stopped American Electric Power from notifying nearby communities that the groundwater around the Big Sandy Power Plant in Lawrence County could be contaminated.
“We wanted them to hear from us what the data was starting to show,” said John McManus, senior vice president of environmental services. “Particularly, as we talked about, for some of these parameters that have drinking water standards like arsenic.”
Threats To Surface Water
All of the testing so far has only looked at groundwater underneath the coal ash disposal sites and may not reflect the conditions farther away.
Abel Russ of the Environmental Integrity Project said if there is contamination, it’s most likely to affect private wells in communities near disposal sites.
“There’s no legal protection for those people, they are stuck with what they are drinking,” he said.
Depending on the flow of the groundwater, coal ash contamination could also affect surface water. These coal-fired power plants are typically next to rivers and large bodies of water; Russ said coal ash pollutants including mercury and selenium can build up in sediment and bio-accumulate in fish creating a hazard for entire food chains.
Selenium poisoning has already been documented in Herrington Lake. It’s a popular fishing and boating spot that also serves as a drinking water source for Danville, though for years regulators have known the coal ash site at Kentucky Utilities’ E.W. Brown plant was discharging into the lake.
And this problem of groundwater contamination compounds as you move downstream, said Tom FitzGerald of the Kentucky Resources Council.
“We as a nation, have developed an interesting way of utilizing our water resources, both as our toilet and our drinking sources,” FitzGerald said. “You have this legacy of all these ponds that are leaching levels of metals of concern that become part of the great background.”
The contamination is less of a threat to people who drink from treated water, said Mura, the state’s Energy and Environment Cabinet spokesman.
“Public drinking water sources are required to be treated prior to consumption in order to ensure that drinking water standards are complied with and human health protected,” Mura said.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency unveiled the new regulations for coal ash in 2015. The agency required utilities to comply, but didn’t create any mechanism to enforce the rules.
Instead, the agency left it up to the public to interpret the groundwater testing data and sue if they found evidence utilities were in violation.
States were also given an option of adopting the federal regulations to enforce the rules. Kentucky started down that path in 2015, but after more than a year of backroom meetings with utility industry representatives, the final version of the state’s rules didn’t pass legal muster.
A Franklin County Circuit Court judge overturned major parts of the Energy and Environment Cabinet’s coal ash rules earlier this year, and the state is back at the drawing board. This time, they're meeting with stakeholders including environmental groups such as the Kentucky Resources Council.
Currently, the state has four field geologists that review groundwater monitoring data and about 60 inspectors who look at all types of waste facilities, including coal ash, state officials said.
The law allows regulators to fine polluters up to $25,000 per day in penalties, but the state often works with utilities to solve violations before they are issued.
“It’s often more important to get things fixed than to collect fines,” Mura said.
Right now, only two Kentucky coal ash sites are working through state-mandated corrective action: Big Rivers’ D.B. Wilson Power Plant in Western Kentucky and Kentucky Utilities’ E.W. Brown Generation Station near Danville. Coal ash pollution at both sites were the subject of WFPL News investigations last year.
Kentucky Spokesman John Mura said the state will enforce federal regulations as required.
“The Cabinet has the necessary tools at our disposal to address the issues, including inspections, agreed orders, administrative hearings,” he said.
He said because of this first round of testing, and early indications that the state’s utilities won’t meet federal standards, the Energy and Environment Cabinet has set up meetings with utilities to review current data and proactively address any problems.
Following the second round of testing, every coal ash site that is leaking will have to retrofit or close, according to EPA rules.
Utilities can choose to enclose the ash in place or remove it. If they close in place, the utility has to remove the water, install a cover and monitor the groundwater for at least 30 years.
“The whole idea of the contamination is that it’s kind of like a tea bag in a pond and it’s steeping out," said Winkler, LG&E’s environmental programs manager.
Dry storage and cap systems will help prevent groundwater pollution, he said.
At least four of Kentucky’s largest utilities have already committed to closing their ash ponds and moving to dry storage, including Louisville Gas & Electric/Kentucky Utilities, Duke Energy, American Electric Power and Tennessee Valley Authority.
But the rules could change. In March, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt signed the first of two rules that would amend current coal ash regulations.
The proposal would allow states to ignore federal regulations and adopt their own standards, rules, remedies and in some cases, suspend groundwater monitoring all together.