Federal compliance reporting on coal combustion residuals in fly ash ponds at Duke Energy’s shuttered Wabash River Generating Station show levels of arsenic, cobalt and lead higher than groundwater protection standards.

Duke Energy released its compliance data and reporting on the Wabash River Generating Station, on Bolton Road in West Terre Haute, on March 1. All utilities in the nation are required to release information related to mandatory groundwater testing at coal-fire power plants.

The monitoring wells are at the base of the fly ash ponds and are not drinking water well samples, said Duke Energy spokeswoman Angeline Protogere. 

Most of the byproducts of coal combustion were reported in Ash Pond A, which contained high levels of arsenic, cobalt, lead, lithium, molybdenum, as well as chromium and radium. Ash Pond B had a high level of arsenic, while the Secondary Settling Pond had a high level of lithium.

The site’s South Ash Pond is the only pond constructed with a synthetic liner, yet showed levels of cobalt higher than groundwater standards.

“Duke Energy intends to perform an Alternate Source Demonstration for the observed cobalt groundwater protection standard exceedance,” the company stated in its compliance reporting.

The company did a similar demonstration at its Cayuga plant where two unused fly ash ponds showed higher levels of cobalt. That report indicated cobalt was not from a landfill by the power plant constructed in 2007. Rather, levels changed from samples taken in September 2012 to March 2018 as ponds were dewatered in 2015.

There are 37 monitoring wells at Wabash River Station, Protogere said, for the coal fly ash basins regulated by federal rule.

“We will be posting plans in July of our assessment for corrective actions. After that time, we’ll have a forum for the public to review the plans,” Protogere said.

Lorrie Heber, director of White Violet Center for Eco-Justice for Sisters of Providence and chair of a coal ash committee for Wabash Valley Riverscape, said she plans to keep a close watch on those corrective plans.

“There are 7.2 million cubic tons of fly ash that sit adjacent to the Wabash River, in a number of ponds, most of which are unlined,” Heber said.

“There has been hydrological surveys done of the area, coordinated by the Hoosier Environmental Council, which have shown in the past that in at least of one of the ponds, the ash is already sitting in the groundwater table. This is not unusual for many of the fly ash ponds throughout the state of Indiana and in other parts of the country for coal-fired electrical power plants,” Heber said.

“This has been of significant concern, as fly ash contains a number of hazardous materials that are harmful to human and other living creatures, so contact with groundwater is problematic and the long-term management of those coal ash ponds if problematic for the long-term health of the river,” Heber said.

Protogere said Duke Energy “will comply will all groundwater standards. This is a detailed regulatory process. We will evaluate a range of cleanup methods and technologies that are protective of the environment,” Protogere said. The power company will collect public input and will “work until the affected areas are cleaned up.” 

Corrective measures, Protogere said, outlined in state and federal laws include two main options to close ash basins. That includes excavation of ponds or a “cap and place” method, where ponds are capped and fly ash remains on site. The groundwater is then monitored for 30 years, Protogere said. Both methods require water to be removed from the ponds in a way that protects water quality in a nearby river or lake.

Heber said any plan for cap and place must closely be watched.

“There is a long history of coal ash spills and breaches that occur in aging ponds and systems, and we really need to remedy that. It is not just a nice thing to do, but an essential thing to do for the health of our river and the groundwater that we all drink,” Heber said.

“We will be keeping a very close eye” on Duke Energy’s corrective plan, Heber said. “It does not behoove the community to invest a lot in our river, in our riverscape, if the health of the river isn’t good. We really have, from all perspectives, a very much invested interest in this issue,” Heber said.

The Wabash River Generating Station was a six-unit station that was completed between 1953 and 1968. Its power units went online in 1953, 1958 and 1968. It was also the site of the 260-megawatt Wabash River Coal Gasification Repowering Project, owned by Wabash Valley Power Association and operated by Duke Energy.

The coal-fired power plant was shut down in 2016 as part of a 2013 settlement with the Sierra Club, Citizens Action Coalition, Save the Valley and Valley Watch over issues with air permits at Duke’s Edwardsport power plant. Additionally, Duke had planned to retire the 1950s-vintage power units as a result of a new federal mercury rule.

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