The coal ash pond at Vectren's A.B. Brown power plant will soon be shut down by federal law after high levels of contaminants boron, lithium and molybdenum were detected at the site. The work could begin as early as next year to close down the pond and begin removing the ash. (Photo: DENNY SIMMONS / COURIER & PRESS)
The coal ash pond at Vectren's A.B. Brown power plant will soon be shut down by federal law after high levels of contaminants boron, lithium and molybdenum were detected at the site. The work could begin as early as next year to close down the pond and begin removing the ash. (Photo: DENNY SIMMONS / COURIER & PRESS)

EVANSVILLE, Ind. — One of the same contaminants found in groundwater near a coal ash pond at Vectren's A.B. Brown power plant also has been found in well water nearby on private property.

The contaminant, boron, is one of several detected by Vectren's own groundwater monitoring wells around the coal ash pond.

Work to shut down the pond and remove much of the ash could begin as early as next year, said Angila Retherford, vice president of environmental affairs at Vectren, a CenterPoint Energy company.

That closure is required by federal law based on elevated levels of several contaminants detected in the groundwater, Retherford said. Those are boron, lithium and molybdenum.

The coal ash pond at Vectren's A.B. Brown power plant will soon be shut down by federal law after high levels of contaminants boron, lithium and molybdenum were detected at the site. The work could begin as early as next year to close down the pond and begin removing the ash.Buy Photo

Vectren must stop putting coal ash into the pond after October 2020 and begin closing it.

Amounts of boron more than twice the federal health advisory level have turned up in a private well at a property on Welborn Road that was tested by the Indiana Department of Environmental Management last fall. The testing also found high levels of sodium.

Residents near the A.B. Brown power plant are served by Evansville city water provided through the German Township Water District.

IDEM spokesman Barry Sneed confirmed the agency's well water analysis found 8.6 milligrams per liter of boron and 1,510 milligrams per liter of sodium.

A private analysis of the property owner's well water and soil was paid for by the Courier & Press and conducted by Environmental Management Consultants, Inc. It found similarly elevated levels of the contaminants in the water samples: 7.39 milligrams per liter of boron and 991 milligrams per liter of sodium.

The EPA health protection advisory level for sodium is 20 milligrams per liter and for Boron is 4 milligrams per liter.

Sneed said the agency notified the property owner in a Feb. 5 letter.

It included the advisory: "Based upon this analysis, and the United States Environmental Protection Agency health advisories, there is evidence that your well water is not acceptable for normal purposes such as drinking or cooking."

The letter advises that the water can be made drinkable by adding a water filtration system and that is still safe for bathing.

However, Sneed said IDEM didn't have enough information to link the contaminated well water to Vectren.

"There is not adequate information to determine groundwater contaminants in the area, and the source of water contamination has not been confirmed at this time," he said. "Further investigation is under consideration, and IDEM’s Drinking Water Branch has not tested other properties in this area."

Retherford said the Vectren monitoring wells that showed the elevated levels of boron were near the coal ash pond's southwest corner and not close to Welborn Road.

"Vectren's groundwater monitoring data results do not support the claims (of the property owner)," company spokeswoman Natalie Hedde said.

Groundwater beneath the area flows west away from Welborn Road, Retherford said.

While this is confirmed in Vectren's annual groundwater monitoring report filed with IDEM, it also notes that a portion of the groundwater does flow northwest from the ash pond and underneath the landfill where Vectren disposes waste from its pollution controls. However, none of that groundwater appears to flow toward Welborn Road, according to the report, which is prepared annually by an engineering firm.

The utility company currently maintains three coal ash ponds. These include the 159-acre pond at A.B. Brown and two smaller ponds at Vectren's F.C. Culley power plant in Warrick County.

"We know we are going to close all three ponds," Retherford said.

The A.B. Brown pond has accumulated an estimated 6 million pounds of coal ash since it was built in 1978 along with the power plant's original generating unit. The pond was created by building an earthen dam across an existing ravine. Like many coal ash ponds, there is no protective liner to prevent coal ash contaminants from seeping into area groundwater.

The coal ash pond at Vectren's A.B. Brown power plant will soon be shut down by federal law after high levels of contaminants boron, lithium and molybdenum were detected at the site. The work could begin as early as next year to close down the pond and begin removing the ash.Buy Photo

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulates disposal of coal ash, which can contain pollutants associated with cancer and other serious health effects, such as mercury, cadmium, arsenic and other heavy metals and pollutants.

Burning coal creates two kinds of combustion waste. Fly ash is captured as it rises up the flue or smokestack and accounts for most of the ash captured in power plants.

About 90 percent of Vectren's coal combustion waste is fly ash, Retherford said. It is transported by conveyor to barges at the Ohio River, which take it to be used in making cement.

The remaining sandy, sludgy waste left at the bottom of the coal-burning boilers is called bottom ash. It is disposed in both dry landfills and in wet form in large surface impoundments called ash ponds.

When coal ash is stored without proper protections, the contaminants can leach into groundwater and potentially get into drinking water sources, posing public health concerns, the EPA says.

Instead of capping its coal ash pond and retaining the waste on site, Retherford said Vectren plans to drain the pond and recycle the remaining coal ash. The water drained from the pond will go through the utilities wastewater treatment process to meet the same pollution standards of other water it is permitted to discharge in the Ohio River, she said.

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