Environmental Report Shows Coal Ash Waste a Danger to Hoosiers

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New Environmental Report Shows Coal Ash Waste in Downtown Indianapolis, Other Sites Statewide a Threat to Drinking Water Safety

(INDIANAPOLIS, IN) – NEWS The Hoosier Environmental Council has released a report showing new data about coal ash pollution that is threatening public health and environmental safety in Indianapolis in and around the Indianapolis Power and Light (IPL) Harding Street Generating Station and across Indiana. The report details the widespread, but preventable, mismanagement of coal ash  — the solid waste that comes from turning coal into electricity — resulting in harmful amounts of pollutants being released into the water that Hoosiers drink and air Hoosiers breathe. The problem is particularly acute given that Indiana has the highest number of coal ash sludge lagoons in the United States.

The HEC’s report shows a considerable threat to drinking water: Indiana’s record of spills and drinking water contamination is among the worst in the nation: 10 contaminated sites, including a Superfund site that has still not undergone cleanup, and three spills of ash sludge into Indiana rivers. Dam safety assessments conducted by the U.S. EPA at the state’s coal ash sludge lagoons have rated five as “high hazard” meaning there is a risk to human life in the event of failure.

One of the 17 Indiana power plants where coal ash is disposed of in sludge lagoons is the Indianapolis Power & Light’s (IPL) Harding Street Generating Station in Indianapolis.  As the HEC’s report details, all but one of the eight ash ponds at Harding Street are unlined, meaning there is no barrier to prevent coal ash contamination from leaking into the groundwater below the ponds. The sludge lagoons are located in the West Fork White River floodplain above a shallow sand and gravel aquifer which supplies a wellfield for Citizens Water and is also the source of drinking water for a south side neighborhood.

In 1989, IPL reported to the Marion County Health Department that its groundwater monitoring had identified several contaminants in its monitoring wells, including boron, arsenic, total dissolved solids and mercury. An HEC-sponsored professional geologist’s review of this groundwater information reveals concentrations of arsenic, mercury, and dissolved solids that exceeded national drinking water standards, and that levels of boron were three times the EPA’s Child Health Advisory for drinking water.

“In Indiana, coal ash sludge lagoons can be and have been built on the banks of our rivers, directly on top of highly vulnerable aquifers that supply drinking water, with no barrier between the ash and the groundwater, and with no monitoring that would disclose if toxic contamination is occurring,” said Tim Maloney, senior policy director for the Hoosier Environmental Council, who also served as lead author of the report. “Given all that we know about the dangers of coal ash, this very weak oversight of coal ash sludge lagoons is irresponsible and puts Hoosiers at serious risk.”

Generating plants owned by other electric companies including Duke Energy, NIPSCO, Vectren, Hoosier Energy, and AEP with similar surface coal ash sludge lagoons are located across the state.

In light of the widespread mismanagement of toxic coal ash and the lack of adequate safeguards nationally and in Indiana, the best approach to ensuring the safety of Hoosiers and the protection of our water is adoption of federally-enforceable rules that all states are required to adopt.  Indiana’s state’s laws and rules governing coal ash disposal are among the weakest in the country.  In Indiana, household trash is subject to stricter oversight than is disposal of sludge lagoon-stored toxic coal ash, even though this waste contains hazardous substances, including metals like arsenic and mercury that leach from the ash when it comes into contact with water.

The Hoosier Environmental Council has also called for renewed and expanded groundwater testing at the Harding Street power plant and in surrounding neighborhoods.  The Marion County Health Department, which conducts sampling of local drinking water wells, has announced it will begin analyzing future private well samples for boron, which is one of the best indicators for groundwater pollution from coal ash. “We encourage all city residents who rely on wells for their drinking water and live near the Harding Street power plant to contact the Health Department and request that their wells be tested,” said Maloney.

“Our report reinforces the fact that Hoosiers face very troubling risks from poorly-regulated coal ash disposal sites throughout the state. Even with clear evidence that this waste has contaminated drinking water in several Indiana communities, the State has taken no steps to improve its oversight at coal ash sludge lagoons,” Maloney said.

In addition to the 35 million pounds of dangerous pollutants released into the atmosphere each year when coal is burned, millions of tons of toxic ash are left for disposal after the electricity is produced.  Indiana electric utilities generated 6.6 million tons of coal ash in 2012. In Indiana, coal ash is disposed of at surface lagoons, landfills, and in surface coal mines. Indiana has more coal ash ponds – 84 total –than any other state in the country. The U.S. EPA study of the human health risks from coal ash found that people who are exposed to coal ash contaminants escaping from an unlined pond may have as high as a 1 in 50 chance of getting cancer from arsenic in their drinking water.  Other potential health problems from prolonged exposure to other toxic metals found in coal ash include cancer, heart damage, lung disease, respiratory distress, kidney disease, reproductive problems, gastrointestinal illness, birth defects, and nervous system impacts.

To view the entire Hoosier Environmental Council “Our Waters at Risk” report, go to: http://www.indianacoalash.org.

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