More than a dozen coal ash impoundments in Indiana continue to threaten state waterways with cancer-causing metals and other toxic pollution years after they stopped receiving new coal ash, according to a new report.
The report, by the Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice, compiled federally mandated monitoring data submitted by the companies that operate coal ash impoundments, large dirt pits where the spent ash from coal burned by power plants was placed for decades.
According to the report, about 500 impoundments, also called coal ash ponds, and landfills where coal ash is dumped exist at 292 sites across the U.S., including dozens at 16 Indiana power plant sites.
“In every state where coal is burned, power companies are violating federal health protections,” said Lisa Evans, senior attorney at Earthjustice. “Coal plant owners are ignoring the law and avoiding cleanup because they don’t want to pay for it. Coal ash waste is causing widespread water contamination that threatens drinking water supplies and the environment.”
A 2015 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rule required those power plants to assess the structural stability of the impoundment periodically, install monitoring wells and establish testing procedures for groundwater protection, keep records and post them online, and close the ponds after a maximum of two years after receiving their last coal ash. The Trump administration modified the rule to be more lenient, allowing some impoundments to avoid having to pay for a site cleanup by allowing them to stay open for a longer time.
The report found that 91% of all coal-fired power plants in the U.S. have impoundments that are leaking carcinogenic arsenic and other toxic heavy metals like lead, mercury and selenium into groundwater near rivers, streams and drinking water aquifers.
Most of the ponds are unlined, meaning there is almost nothing to stop the ash from seeping into groundwater or nearby waterways.
Nearly all the power plants, or about 96%, have no plans to clean affected groundwater, and only about half agree that a cleanup is necessary at all.
The impoundments have already negatively affected Hoosiers, and more are threatened.
"Coal ash has already contaminated drinking water wells in four Indiana communities, threatened drinking water in a fifth, and has rendered groundwater unusable at 10 other sites. The cleanups required by the rule have to happen to stop the damage to our state’s natural resources,” said Dr. Indra Frank, Hoosier Environmental Council environmental health and water policy director.
Here's how Indiana’s coal ash impoundments ranked in pollution out of 292 sites in the nation.
No. 11 -- PETERSBURG GENERATING STATION
The Petersburg Generating Station, owned by AES Indiana (formerly Indianapolis Power and Light), is one of four Indiana power plants identified by the Center for Public Integrity in 2014 as a “super polluter,” a source of high levels of toxic air releases and greenhouse gas emissions.
The plant contains two regulated impoundments — a 152-acre multi-unit ash pond system with three inactive coal ash ponds, ponds A, A’ and C, and a nearby landfill.
The three ponds are contaminated with cadmium at up to 1.3 times the maximum contaminant level, cobalt at 113 times the groundwater protection standard and molybdenum at 4.5 times the groundwater protection standard. The landfill had contamination up to 10 times the maximum contaminant level for arsenic, 45.5 times the groundwater protection standard for lithium and 119 times the groundwater protection standard for molybdenum.
Beryllium, boron, sulfate and thallium were also found at elevated levels in the system.
AES Indiana has chosen an in-place closure for Pond C, meaning the pond will be covered but the ash will be left in place, but the company has not selected remedies for Ponds A and A’ or the landfill.
The company has asked the EPA to extend the life of the landfill by two years three different times, stating that the landfill will be required in order to continue operations at the generating station.
AES Indiana recently announced the Petersburg Generating Station would convert its coal-fired generation units to natural gas. The company has not said how that conversion would affect its plans for the landfill.
No. 24 -- SCHAHFER GENERATING STATION
The R.M. Schahfer Generating Station, owned by Northern Indiana Public Service Co., was also identified as a “super polluter,” a source of high levels of toxic air releases and greenhouse gas emissions.
The plant site contains three regulated impoundments, including a landfill, a waste disposal area and a third multi-cell unit containing the material storage runoff basin, metal cleaning waste basin and drying area.
The impoundments have high levels of cobalt, lithium and molybdenum. Boron, chloride, fluoride, sulfate and other pollutants were also detected. A plume of cobalt was detected in groundwater under the multi-cell unit.
NIPSCO plans on closing the multi-cell unit impoundments by excavating the 138,200 cubic yards of coal ash, transporting it to the plant’s landfill and covering the ponds with new soil. The utility reported that it requires the waste disposal area to remain open while it transitions away from coal-fired electric generation.
NIPSCO planned to retire the Schahfer plant by 2023, but it postponed the retirement to 2025 after a federal solar tariff investigation delayed shipments of solar projects the company planned to use to replace its coal plants.
The landfill consists of several phases, five of which have been closed. Phase VI was closed in Dec. 2022, while phase VII, a 17.4-acre lined landfill, will still accept coal ash from other facilities. The company built another phase, phase VIII, in 2018.
No. 32 -- HARDING STREET GENERATING STATION
The Harding Street Generating Station, owned by AES Indiana, has one regulated impoundment, an ash pond system with four coal ash ponds.
The ponds have high levels of arsenic at 51 times the groundwater protection standard, molybdenum at 8.5 times the groundwater protection standard in deep monitoring wells and lithium at twice the level allowed. The wells also had high levels of antimony, boron and sulfate.
Contamination from the Harding Street Generating Station ash pond system has been found under a neighboring business, and two of the coal ash ponds in the system were assessed as potential threats to the White River.
“[T]he assessment concluded that the contents released from hypothetical breaches at Ponds 1 and 3 could be deposited into Lick Creek and eventually spread into the White River and the immediate downstream area. Therefore, both Ponds 1 and 3 were classified as significant hazard potential CCR surface impoundments due to the environmental damage to the White River and other areas immediately downstream that could result from a hypothetical failure or mis-operation at either pond,” stated a 2021 hazard assessment report.
The plant stopped using coal in 2016, and AES Indiana reported its intent to close the ponds in Oct. 2020. As of September 2022, the ponds remain open and the company has not yet chosen which method it will use to close the pond.
No. 36 -- GIBSON GENERATING STATION
It has four regulated coal ash impoundments — the North Ash Pond, North Settling Basin, East Settling Basin and the South Aggregate Landfill.
The impoundments have high levels of arsenic, boron, cobalt, lithium, molybdenum, selenium and sulfate.
At least two impoundments at the plant, the North Ash Pond and North Settling Basin, were identified as having a “significant” hazard potential. An analysis found that flooding from the Wabash River could overwhelm dams at the impoundments, spreading coal ash into the river and places downstream.
The East Settling Basin was closed after coal ash was removed in 2021 and clean soil fill was put in its place. The closure plan for the North Ash Pond and North Settling Basin were approved by IDEM, but both sites and the landfill remain open.
The company attempted to pass $200 million in coal ash pond cleanup costs at the Gibson plant and other facilities to ratepayers, but was ultimately denied by the Indiana Supreme Court in March.
No. 42 -- CLIFTY CREEK GENERATING STATION
The Clifty Creek Generating Station, owned by the Ohio Valley Electric Corp., has two regulated coal ash impoundments — the West Boiler Slag Pond and the Landfill Runoff Collection Pond.
The two impoundments reported high levels of arsenic, boron, lithium, molybdenum and sulfate and were identified as having a “significant” hazard potential. Breach inundation studies found both ponds could cause “economic loss, environmental damage, disruption of lifeline facilities” and other impacts under certain flooding conditions, including the spread of coal ash into the Ohio River.
Both ponds remain open, and OVEC has asked the EPA to continue allowing the impoundments to continue receiving coal ash and other waste.
No. 48 -- A.B. BROWN GENERATING STATION
The A.B. Brown Generating Station, owned by CenterPoint Energy Inc., has three regulated coal ash impoundments.
The Brown ash pond, sedimentation pond and landfill reported high levels of arsenic, boron, cobalt, lithium, molybdenum, sulfate and thallium. The Brown ash pond was identified as having a “significant” hazard potential during flooding, due to its proximity to the Ohio River and the potential economic and environmental impacts caused by a potential failure.
CenterPoint Energy said the ash pond would be used until the retirement of the plant’s coal-fired generating units Oct. 15, 2023. The company will also build a lined coal ash pond and plans to build a new lined contact stormwater pond by Oct. 15, 2023.
No. 50 -- WABASH RIVER GENERATING STATION
Terre Haute, Indiana
The Wabash River Generating Station, owned by Duke Energy Indiana, was imploded in 2020, but the site still contains a single ash pond system with four coal ash ponds.
Three of the coal ash ponds are being excavated, and the coal ash from those ponds will be placed into the remaining pond. The remaining pond will be closed in place.
No. 53 -- CAYUGA GENERATING STATION
Vermillion County, Indiana
The Cayuga Generating Station, owned by Duke Energy Indiana, has four regulated coal ash impoundments, including the primary and secondary settling ponds, a lined ash disposal area and a landfill.
The impoundments reported the presence of arsenic, boron, cobalt, lead, lithium, molybdenum and sulfate, and identified the lined ash disposal area and secondary ash settling pond as having a “significant” hazard potential during flooding.
Duke Energy Indiana reported it stopped sending coal ash and other waste to the ponds and disposal area, removed all coal ash from the secondary ash settling pond and all visible ash from the primary ash settling pond.
No. 61 -- F.B. CULLEY GENERATING STATION
CenterPoint Energy’s F.B. Culley Generating Station has two regulated coal ash impoundments, the East and West Ash Ponds.
The ponds reported arsenic, boron, cobalt, lithium, molybdenum and sulfate at the impoundments, and were both identified as having a “significant” hazard potential during flooding.
No. 86 -- GALLAGHER GENERATING STATION
New Albany, Indiana
Duke Energy Indiana’s Gallagher Generating Station has four regulated coal ash impoundments, including the primary and secondary settling ponds, Ash Pond A and a landfill.
The company reported the impoundments have high levels of arsenic, boron, cobalt, lithium, molybdenum and sulfate.
The Hoosier Environmental Council in May asked the Marion County Superior Court to review IDEM’s approval of Duke Energy Indiana’s plan to close the Gallagher plant impoundments. The group said the 2016 plan violated state and federal law by allowing coal ash to threaten the environment by being in potentially permanent contact with groundwater.
Duke Energy Indiana withdrew its original plan, and the HEC’s legal challenge was dismissed.
The secondary settling pond has since closed, and excavation of coal ash has begun at Ash Pond A.
No. 108 -- BAILLY GENERATING STATION
NIPSCO’S Bailly Generating Station was retired in 2018, but three regulated coal ash impoundments remain at the plant site, including Settling Pond 1 and 2 and the Boiler Slag Pond.
The company reported the impoundment had high levels of arsenic, cadmium, lithium, molybdenum and thallium.
NIPSCO began the process of closing the impoundments in 2020 and said it would submit a finalized closure plan in the first quarter of 2023.
No. 136 -- EAGLE VALLEY GENERATING STATION
The AES Indiana Eagle Valley Generating Station was converted to natural gas, but a single coal ash impoundment with three coal ash ponds remains at the plant site.
The ponds have reported high levels of arsenic, boron, lithium and molybdenum at the site, and all three ponds have been identified as having “significant hazard potential.”
The plant experienced at least two failures at the impoundments that sent a mixture of coal ash and water called ash sluice into the White River. On Feb. 14, 2007, a levee failure released 30 million gallons of ash sluice, and a failure on Jan. 30, 2008 released an additional 30 million gallons of ash sluice into the White River. The plant also had smaller releases that same year.
The company had to pay a $23,800 civil penalty and perform a study of its ash pond levees. The company did not have to perform a cleanup of the ash sluice and even petitioned the EPA to lower the risk classification for the coal ash pond that failed from “high” to “significant.”
AES Indiana began closing the impoundment in 2020. The impoundments will be closed in place, and the coal ash will remain on site.
No. 162 -- ROCKPORT GENERATING STATION
American Electric Power Inc.’s Rockport Generating Station is one of four Indiana power plants identified as a “super polluter,” a source of high levels of toxic air releases and greenhouse gas emissions.
It has two regulated coal ash sites consisting of two open ash ponds and a landfill that have reported high levels of arsenic and boron.
AEP has said the plant’s coal-fired generating units will be retired by the end of 2028. The ponds remain open, but AEP’s closure plans include the removal of the coal ash from the ponds.
No. 200 -- MICHIGAN CITY GENERATING STATION
Michigan City, Indiana
NIPSCO’s Michigan City Generating Station has two regulated coal ash impoundments consisting of several coal ash ponds.
The impoundments have high levels of arsenic, boron, selenium and thallium, and at least one pond, Primary Settling Pond 2, was identified as having a “significant hazard potential” during some flooding situations.
NIPSCO recently agreed to pay $12 million to continue the cleanup of the Town of Pines Groundwater Plume Superfund site, which was created in 2002 after coal ash used as fill material contaminated drinking water wells in the town.
The company is moving forward with plans to close ponds at the site by removing the coal ash and transporting it to a lined landfill at its R.M. Schahfer Generating Station. Groups like Just Transition NWI and the Hoosier Environmental Council have argued that the coal ash cleanup should also include legacy coal ash dumping sites that extend beyond the confines of the impoundments.
No. 206 -- WHITEWATER VALLEY STATION
The Richmond Power and Light’s Whitewater Valley Station contains one coal ash impoundment site that reported high levels of mercury and molybdenum.
The plant has outlived its operational life by nearly 20 years, and the plant’s two coal-fired units only generate electricity about 20 to 30 days per year.
The company said it would submit updated closure plans to IDEM by fall 2022, but that has not yet happened. The company said closure of the pond will take up to six years after IDEM approves the closing plan.
No. 278 -- MEROM GENERATING STATION
Sullivan County, Indiana
The Merom Generating Station was purchased by coal giant Hallador Energy in October, and has one coal ash impoundment, which has high levels of fluoride.
Earlier this year, a cryptocurrency startup called AboutBit signed a five-year agreement to purchase energy for a planned 115-megawatt cryptomining data center.
The landfill is still active as of August.