As you look ahead to trips over the summertime across Indiana, you may be lulled by the breezy movement of corn and beanstalks and the steady rhythm of a tractor pass. But in the distance, in many parts of Indiana, lie vast acres of coal ash sludge lagoons, the decades-long remains of Indiana’s unusually dependent, unhealthy reliance on coal for electricity.
These lagoons contain toxic concentrations of metals, yet our state and federal government have provided weak safeguards to protect our drinking water, rivers and streams, and wildlife from its dangers. In fact, just at the moment when decades-delayed federal safeguards seemed within reach, anti-regulatory ideologues and segments of the electric power industry have attempted to undermine the implementation of those necessary safeguards.
Though Indiana is the fourteenth largest of states, it ranks first in the nation in terms of the number of coal ash sludge lagoons. These often unlined pools contain a stew of metals, including hexavalent chromium, beryllium and arsenic, which in certain concentrations can be carcinogenic.
Under current policy, these sludge lagoons are allowed to be located in floodplains and near aquifers used for drinking water. Were this toxic stew to end up in a drinking water well, the U.S. EPA has concluded that it could yield a one-in-fifty chance of cancer.
Indiana has appallingly shallow safeguards on the books to protect us from coal ash spills arising from these lagoons: No requirements for composite liners. No requirement for a professional engineer to design these lagoons. No required groundwater monitoring. No mandatory inspections. No bonding requirements.
Truly, do such safeguards matter to the health of our people? How could a responsible, modern American electrical utility possibly put hard-working, law-abiding people in harm’s way? Unfortunately, the reality hits agonizingly close to home. Just four hours south of the Indiana border, one of the largest manmade disasters in U.S. history took place four years agoby a federally owned utility in business for nearly eighty years. This disaster, one hundred times the size of the Exxon Valdez, spilled over one billion gallons of coal ash sludge into the Emory River.
The monetary cost is at least $1.2 billion. It would have cost at most $25 million to have upgraded protections to contain this coal ash sludge pool — an extremely cheap insurance policy that would have prevented untold damage to the lives of a community, fish and mammals.
Indiana has not been spared this risk. In Martinsville, the White River has experienced, in the last six years, two coal ash spills from lagoons owned by Indianapolis Power and Light, each on the order of 30 million gallons.
Eight Indiana coal ash sludge lagoons have contaminated groundwater, and 60% of the lagoons inspected by the U.S. EPA were given a “poor rating” for structural integrity. Residents in one town, East Mt. Carmel near Evansville, were found to have boron-containing coal ash residue from a Duke Energy-owned lagoon in their water wells, compelling the community to live on bottled water — and, eventually, piped water from miles away.
Despite abundant toxicity concerns of coal ash, it is allowed to be “recycled” to produce innumerable household products, building materials and even soil amendments. Where coal ash poses the most risk is when it is not enclosed. This happened in the Town of Pines in northern Indiana, where the Northwest Indiana-based utility NIPSCO was allowed to dump more than 100 million tons of coal ash into an unlined landfill, and dispose of its coal ash by using it as road fill and a soil leveler throughout the town. As a result, a toxic plume of heavy metals made its way into residents’ drinking water wells.
The Hoosier Environmental Council continues to put its energies and resources in helping fellow Hoosiers be more protected from the risks of coal ash sludge pollution. We’re legally representing a community group in the Town of Pines that has been deeply harmed by coal ash contamination.
While some electric utilities are converting their sludge lagoons to more protective solid waste landfills, many unlined lagoons remain. We’re active in a broad coalition of Indiana groups, led at the national level by the Environmental Integrity Project and Earth Justice, working to secure long-held safeguards against coal ash sludge lagoons at the federal level.
This election season, talk to your legislative and Congressional candidates about your concerns about coal ash disposal. Share your concerns with gubernatorial candidates John Gregg and Mike Pence. And join our campaign: Write us at firstname.lastname@example.org, Subject: Coal Ash.