Environmental Group Challenging Permit Allowing Coal Ash Discharge into White River

May 2, 2023

An environmental group in Indiana is challenging a decision made by the state’s environmental agency allowing AES Indiana to discharge more than a million gallons of water containing toxic coal ash into the White River every day.

The Hoosier Environmental Council filed an administrative appeal over a water permit issued by the Indiana Department of Environmental Management allowing the AES Indiana Eagle Valley Generating Station in Martinsville to discharge about 1.3 million gallons of water tainted with coal ash into the West Fork of the White River every day.

Coal ash is the toxic waste that is created when coal is burned for energy. Coal ash contains many toxic metals and carcinogens.

AES Indiana has reported groundwater at its Eagle Valley coal ash impoundments were contaminated with elevated levels of arsenic, lithium and molybdenum. Ground water monitors also detected barium, boron, chloride, iron, magnesium, radium and other contaminants.

The permit issued by IDEM, called the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System permit, allows plant operators to pump groundwater contaminated with coal ash at the Eagle Valley plant and use it as process and cooling water. After the water is used, it is discharged into the White River.

Hoosier Environmental Council director of environmental health and water policy Dr. Indra Frank said the decision puts Hoosiers at risk.

“The Hoosier Environmental Council has been advocating for years to ensure safe containment of coal ash,” Frank said. “Unfortunately, legal action is required in the face of this permit approval. This permit from the state essentially allows AES to pump contaminated groundwater into the river, and they are calling that a ‘clean up.’ That is not acceptable for Hoosiers and is a violation of EPA coal ash regulations.”

In comments to IDEM, the Council and the Morgan County Soil and Water Conservation District warned that the groundwater’s use in coolers, the boiler and cooling tower would evaporate the water carrying contaminants and increase the concentrations of those contaminants making their way to the White River.

IDEM responded by saying that effluent limitations guidelines, which set the national standards for wastewater discharge to surface waters like the White River, only apply to chemicals used for cooling tower maintenance, not the chemicals that may be in the groundwater pumped from coal ash impoundments. The agency said it would review and sample data for discharge from the cooling tower flushing process within six months of the permit issuance to determine whether any modifications to the permit were required.

Contaminants in coal ash impoundments are regulated by a separate rule, the Disposal of Coal Combustion Residuals from Electric Utilities rule. The rule established the bare-minimum regulations for coal ash impoundments, including groundwater monitoring and corrective action to prevent the release of contaminated ground water.

The rule was later amended to allow states to develop and manage their own state coal ash permitting programs if the program is approved by the EPA. Indiana lawmakers voted in 2021 to empower IDEM to begin the process to establish a state coal ash permitting program. IDEM has written a draft version of the program.

The Hoosier Environmental Council’s appeal will be heard by the Office of Environmental Adjudication. The Council will be represented by the Bloomington-based Conservation Law Center.

While the appeal is being heard, some legislation that has made its way through the Indiana General Assembly could affect how the state and utilities regulate coal ash impoundments and potential contamination in the future.

House Enrolled Act 1417 allows utilities to pass on the costs of coal ash cleanups to their ratepayers without having to get prior permission from the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission. The IURC will be later be able to assess whether the utility’s rate recovery was “reasonable and prudent.” The bill has been signed into law by Gov. Eric Holcomb and took effect April 20.

HEA1417 could, in effect, stop companies from dragging their feet on the cleanup of decades worth of coal ash at dozens of former coal-fired power plants sites around the state by incentivizing the cleanup. The bill could also potentially empower bad actors to drag out the length of cleanups and charge customers for much longer than a dedicated cleanup would take.

House Engrossed Bill 1623 is a bill currently being considered by the Indiana General Assembly. The bill contains a provision that would prevent the proposed state coal ash permit program from containing any restrictions that are not included in the federal coal ash disposal rule or that are more stringent than the federal rule.

Environmental Group Challenging Permit Allowing Coal Ash Discharge into White River