Residents of Kingston, Tenn., awoke on the morning of Dec. 22, 2008, to find a sea of dark gray sludge covering the surrounding landscape. The thick muck was toxic coal ash, which had spilled out of a retaining pond at a nearby power plant.
In less than an hour, more than 1.1 billion gallons of sludge breached the banks of the pond, flooding 300 acres of rural land, displacing dozens of families and spilling into the Emory River. Nearly a year later, coal ash can still be found floating along the waterway; in the end, cleanup costs are expected to exceed $1 billion.
The catastrophic spill — 100 times larger in scale than the Exxon Valdez disaster — sparked a debate about how power plants dispose of waste, and exactly what type of hazards coal ash and other coal byproducts pose to the environment, wildlife and human health.
As a result, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency embarked on an exhaustive review of several hundred coal ash sites across the country. Last week, the EPA issued a 230-page report highlighting concerns about toxic pollutants in coal ash, announcing the agency will likely decide by the end of the year whether the liquefied residue from coal production should be classified as hazardous waste, resulting in stricter regulations.
Despite heightened EPA scrutiny and impending regulation changes, however, local environmentalists fear state officials in Kentucky might not have learned any lessons from last year’s spill.
On Thursday, the Kentucky Division of Water will hold a public hearing to consider a request by Louisville Gas & Electric to begin releasing byproducts from its Trimble plant into the Ohio River. The power company also wants to expand an existing coal ash pond — similar to the one that failed in Kingston — in Trimble County.
“I will drop over dead if they do not approve this permit … Our experience with the Division of Water has been that they simply do not fulfill their mission, that’s all there is to it,” says Tim Guilfoile, deputy director of the Sierra Club’s Water Sentinels program. “In my experience, the Kentucky Division of Water is one of the worst that I’ve had the pleasure of interfacing with.”
Despite this less-than-optimistic outlook, local activists are urging the public — particularly Louisvillians, given the city’s proximity to the plant — to attend the hearing and oppose the permit.
Neither the Division of Water nor LG&E responded to calls seeking comment for this story.
In 2006, LG&E began constructing a new 750-megawatt coal-fired power plant in Trimble County, about 40 miles upriver from Louisville on the banks of the Ohio. The additional plant will more than double the amount of electricity currently generated at the site.
With the new plant nearing completion, LG&E plans to vertically expand its Trimble ash pond. If allowed to proceed, the power company would build 100-foot-high dikes around parts of the pond, making room for an additional 2.1 million gallons of wet coal ash, a substance that contains pollutants including arsenic, mercury and lead.
Currently, the edges of the Trimble pond are similar in size to the dikes that gave way in Kingston.
“We’ve already got a mountain right next to the Ohio River. Now they want to make that mountain much higher,” says Mark Quarles, owner of the Nashville-based Globally Green Consulting, which analyzed the Trimble proposal at the request of the Sierra Club. “If this pond were to fail at Trimble, it’s pretty much a straight shot down the Ohio River to Louisville.”
Even in the absence of a spill, environmental groups worry toxins from the coal ash will seep into the ground because the pond is not properly lined, potentially leaching into the nearby river.
Opponents of the proposal argue the “wet storage” of coal ash is an antiquated practice, one that might soon be banned. Instead, they are urging LG&E to store its coal ash in a more environmentally friendly (relatively speaking), albeit costlier dry landfill. According to a June 2009 report issued by LG&E engineers, the power company has plans to switch to a dry landfill at Trimble in several years, once the pond reaches capacity.
In addition to expanding the ash pond to make it last a few more years, the company wants to begin discharging water used to clean its smokestacks into the Ohio River. The practice of cleansing smokestacks is intended to reduce air pollution, but often results in simply redirecting impurities elsewhere. Although the liquid, called scrubber sludge, would first be sent to “settle” in a retention pond, the untreated wastewater then would flow directly into the river, to the tune of about 2.3 million gallons a day.
Much like coal ash, this scrubber sludge contains poisonous metals and other toxins that have been linked to health problems including kidney disease, damage to the nervous system, lead poisoning and cancer.
About 40 percent of power plants do not discharge any scrubber water at all, while about one-third use advanced (read: costly) treatment systems to remove toxins from the wastewater before releasing it.
“These guys are basically in the bottom-third of the class,” says Craig Segall, an attorney for the Sierra Club, referring to LG&E. This week, Segall submitted official comments to the Kentucky Division of Water regarding the Trimble plant proposal on behalf of several nonprofit groups. “They know this is the end of the day for wet ponds, and they should know it’s the end of the day for just dumping waste into rivers. The EPA is trying to update their standards as fast as they can, and Trimble is trying to get in under the wire.”