Maps released by Duke Energy show that a dozen Terre Haute and West Terre Haute homes could be affected if ponds of coal ash were to fail at its former Wabash River Generating Station, which closed last December after 63 years of operation.
One homeowner says he has sustained little long-term damage when the river has overflowed during the 25 years he has lived on its banks, but the outcome might be different if flooding involved coal ash.
Environmental groups are concerned not only about flooding but about potential groundwater contamination.
Duke says its plans to close and cap the ash ponds rely on science and engineering under a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rule.
In January 2005 when the Wabash reached 27.4 feet — it’s eighth-highest crest ever — Thomas Bair had 31 inches of muddy river water in the basement and garage of his home, the former Fort Harrison Boat and Saddle Club.
Once the water receded, he hosed down his lawn tractor, other tools and equipment and “only lost one electric staple gun. … Everything else I was able to clean out [the] carburetors and bring back. The electric motors I left alone [to dry].”
Bair has since purchased a water-filled bladder to serve as a temporary levee in case of flooding but is concerned it would not be effective in the event of an ash spill.
“I don’t think it would take the weight of the ash,” he said. He’s also concerned ash might ruin pumps used to remove floodwater.
In plans now being reviewed by the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, Duke plans to consolidate 9.1 million tons of ash from five ponds into two, cap the ponds and monitor them for 30 years.
That doesn’t sit well with Bair, who said the newest pond, constructed directly across from his home in 2006, has “changed the hydrodynamics of the river and … pushes the water toward me.”
He is also concerned the ash cannot be moved from one pond to another without “causing a bunch of dust” and thus turning a potential water pollution issue into one of air pollution. “My biggest concern is that the state spent millions on the Healthy Rivers initiative … and the city of Terre Haute is spending $120 million to help clean up the river [by improving wastewater treatment], and this one industry could ruin all that,” Bair said. Duke’s inundation maps show Bair’s home could be hit by an ash spill in as little as 50 minutes, and a worst case scenario would send 3.6 feet of ash-laden water into his home. Despite releasing the maps in October in response to concerns by environmental groups, Duke has not reached out to the handful of homeowners affected.
Duke willing to speak with residents
“Now that the plans are posted, we’re looking at next steps for communicating with Indiana residents or businesses near our plants, and we are glad to speak with any resident who has questions,” said company spokeswoman Angeline Protegere.
The plans on file represent “extreme scenarios,” she said.
The company has worked with local officials in affected areas concerning potential release of coal ash. Doreen Hojnicki, Vigo County’s emergency management director, said her staff has taken part in “tabletop” exercises with the utility to prepare for a potential emergency.
Duke has three other sites along the Wabash and Ohio rivers in Indiana where coal ash will be consolidated and closed. Only one other site, the Gallagher power plant in New Albany, has a residential neighbor who would be affected. No homes face potential risk due to failure at its Cayuga site in Vermillion County or Gibson Generating Station near Princeton.
While the EPA does not consider coal ash a hazardous material, environmentalists point out it contains cancer- causing substances such as arsenic and chromium.
In a joint letter to the Environmental Management Department, five environmental groups charged that Duke’s ash pond closure plan for its Wabash River site does not meet federal and state regulatory requirements.
The plan leaves ash in groundwater and in the floodplain and does not include some federally required elements for groundwater monitoring, according to the letter from the Hoosier Environmental Council, Sierra Club, Citizens Action Coalition, Waterkeeper Alliance and Earthjustice “The floodplain of a major river is the worst possible location for a waste site, especially one at the massive scale of the Wabash Coal Generating Station coal ash ponds,” the letter said. The environmental groups said most of the ponds lack liners and have a shallow sand and gravel aquifer under them, so the ash poses hazards to human health and the environment “for decades, if not centuries.”
They’re also concerned the Wabash, as rivers do, will eventually change course and erode berms and caps proposed for the ash ponds.
Why not move the ash?
Lorrie Heber, director of the White Violet Center for Eco-Justice at the Sisters of Providence at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, noted that coal burned at the power plant was brought in via rail and could be taken out via rail.
“Why not move it, get it away from the river?” she asked. “It’s astonishing how close the plant and the pits are to the river. … It’s hard to see how this can be safe in the long term.”
But excavation “can be the most extreme and disruptive method,” Protegere said.
“Transportation, land clearing for new landfill construction and for electric customers — it’s the most expensive option. It can do more harm to the environment. … We’re doing a combination of approaches depending on the basin.” Environmentalists point to a 2014 incident in North Carolina caused by a burst pipe at a Duke plant, spilling 40,000 gallons of ash into the Dan River. The ash spread nearly 70 miles downstream before it was contained.
Protegere said, “After the cleanup and remediation, the [Dan] River is now thriving.”
Melody Birmingham-Byrd, president of Duke Energy Indiana, said in a statement: “We prefer an approach that relies on science and engineering under an EPA rule that was fully vetted and reviewed before adoption. We believe that the plans currently under review by the state ensure that these basins will be closed in a manner that protects our health and the environment.” Indiana-American Water Co. uses groundwater to supply Terre Haute and notes that its wells are about 1.6 miles from Duke’s ash ponds and are on the other side of the Wabash River.
“Indiana-American takes water quality and safety very seriously,” said spokesman Joe Loughmiller. “We continue to monitor the progress of Duke’s proposal to deal with coal ash … and evaluate potential risks the plan may pose to our wells.” The Environmental Management Department has been reviewing Duke’s site plans since last December, and on Oct. 16 notified the utility by letter of more than two dozen items in its application where additional information, documentation and verification of items are needed.
Information requested includes “how release of any contaminants will be prevented during flooding events.”
No deadline has been set for the state agency to act on the Duke application. The utility was given 60 days to respond to the Oct. 16 letter in which Rebecca Eifirt Joniskan, chief of the permits branch of the Office of Land Quality, said the state’s goal “is to provide you with as timely a permit decision as possible.”