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Coal Ash Uncovered: Polluted Groundwater Found At 14 Kentucky Sites



For decades, Kentucky’s own coal stoked the fires that generated most of its electricity. And while some of those power plants have shut down or switched to natural gas, their legacy remains today in the leftover coal ash that’s stored all over the commonwealth.

Now, new data show the coal ash buried in landfills and submerged in ponds at many of these sites has contaminated local groundwater.

This new look at coal ash pollution comes from the power plants themselves; they were recently required to make public a first round of groundwater monitoring reports under new federal rules.

A WFPL News and Ohio Valley ReSource analysis found contaminated groundwater at 14 Kentucky power plants. That’s every power plant covered under the new federal rules.

Those pollutants include known carcinogens like arsenic and radium.

Seven of the 14 sites covered under the EPA rules exceeded federal drinking water standards for arsenic. Tests at three sites showed radium levels above drinking water standards.

Environmental advocates say the first round of data demonstrates contamination is ubiquitous, not just in Kentucky, but at coal ash sites around the country.

“This is one of the things about the rule that has me bashing my head against the wall because everyone can look at the data and know that there’s contamination,” said Abel Russ with the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project. “There’s unsafe levels of arsenic, unsafe levels of cobalt, lithium whatever it is. It’s as plain as day, but the way the rules are written, they don’t have to do anything about it yet.”

Industry representatives first informed Kentucky officials of the results at a meeting in May, said John Mura, spokesman for Kentucky’s Energy and Environment Cabinet. Representatives from six of the seven utilities covered under this rule have told the state they need to do additional testing — as outlined under EPA rules — before taking action.

“Based on the data we have, we have no indication that there is any imminent danger to human health at any of the sites right now,” Mura said.

Identifying The Threat

A year ago, it was clear that there was a problem near Big Rivers Electric Corporation’s Green Station in Henderson County. The station sits on the banks of the Green River. And directly underneath the plant’s massive coal ash landfill, the banks were leaching orange liquid.

Riverbank discoloration near the coal ash landfill at the Green Power Station in Henderson County in June 2017. Photo by Erica Peterson.

Around the same time — June 2017 — state inspectors from the Division of Waste Management visited Green station’s landfill. In a letter sent to Big Rivers in January 2018, Solid Waste Branch Manager Danny Anderson summarized that trip’s findings: regulators found multiple places where contaminated water was flowing out of the landfill. Some of it was going into ditches, and some straight into the Green River.

“The available groundwater data and the presence of high-flow leachate outbreaks present at the facility indicate a significant potential threat to human health and the environment from this facility,” Anderson wrote.

At another Big Rivers plant, aerial photos suggest coal ash pollution could have been flowing into an unlined ditch for more than a decade. It contained 980 times more arsenic than the federal standard. And in Central Kentucky, coal ash pollution flowed into a popular recreational lake for years from a Kentucky Utilities plant.

These cases and others show the Kentucky Department for Environmental Protection was already aware of potential problems at several power plants. But the new groundwater monitoring data, provided by the utilities themselves, suggests coal ash pollution is far more widespread.

WFPL News and OVR analyzed groundwater monitoring reports for all 14 power plants with coal ash waste sites covered under the EPA rules in Kentucky. For each site, reporters averaged the groundwater samples collected by utilities and compared them to background levels. This is a simplification of the complex statistical analyses used by utility companies.

Every power plant showed signs of contamination from multiple pollutants. In some cases, the chemicals found in the groundwater were exponentially higher than background levels.

Contamination Across The Commonwealth

Most of Kentucky’s coal ash sites were built in the 60s, 70s and 80s. Most are unlined — meaning there isn’t any sort of barrier between the coal ash and the soil.

Boron, sulfate and chloride are among the common contaminants. These chemicals are also sort of the “canaries in the coal mine” — the first contaminants to appear in the water column. Though it’s currently included on a list of less harmful pollutants, the EPA recently proposed reclassifying boron. In acute doses, it can cause rashes, nausea, ulcers, vomiting and diarrhea, according to the EPA.

But when it comes to the most harmful contaminants — carcinogens like arsenic and radium — there’s evidence they’re leaching into groundwater at multiple Kentucky sites.

  • At the Mill Creek Generating Station in Louisville, operated by Louisville Gas & Electric, the WFPL News analysis found monitoring wells that contained up to 40 times more arsenic than federal drinking water standards.
  • At the Paradise Fossil Plant, located on the Green River in Muhlenberg County, testing found levels of arsenic more than eight times higher than federal drinking water standards. That plant is owned by the Tennessee Valley Authority: a 2008 coal ash spill at the utility’s Kingston Fossil Plant spilled more than a billion gallons of slurry onto nearby land and into waterways.
  • At Kentucky Utilities’ Ghent Generating Station north of Carrollton, radium levels at a groundwater well near the ash pond were 33 times the drinking water standard. In a well near the ash landfill, the radium levels were 10 times the standard. Tests done at Ghent also revealed elevated levels of arsenic, antimony and beryllium, among other contaminants.

Abel Russ said generally, the bigger the site, the more extensive the groundwater contamination. He has studied coal ash waste sites at several states around the country while working for the Environmental Integrity Project.

From what Russ has seen, the signs of coal ash contamination in Kentucky are indicative of what’s happening around the country.

“Basically anywhere you’ve buried coal ash in the ground without a good liner, it will have leaked into the groundwater, so I don’t think Kentucky is better or worse from that perspective,” Russ said.

Click here to explore our interactive coal ash map >>

Michael Winkler is the Environmental Program Manager for Louisville Gas & Electric and Kentucky Utilities. He said the company has always known that water from unlined coal ash ponds can diffuse into the groundwater at sites like Mill Creek.

“So we’ve had [monitoring wells] that indicate different levels of metals in there, but again the groundwater flow has always been directly towards the river and all the river samples have indicated that’s always trace amounts, so we are not impacting any waters in such a way to cause a problem for human health,” Winkler said.

TVA spokesman Scott Brooks said the results are preliminary and do not mean there are issues with groundwater protection or impacts to drinking water.

“Under the [Coal Combustion Residual] rule it requires further study to evaluate and to characterize what is going on at each of those locations,” Brooks said.

Other utilities that spoke with WFPL News echoed that: the EPA designed the first round of testing to look for statistically significant increases of contaminants in groundwater. If contamination is found, the EPA rules require a second round of testing to validate the threat.

Already, six of the seven utilities in Kentucky that fall under EPA rules said they will do that additional testing after finding evidence of contamination.

But the preliminary nature of these initial results hasn’t stopped American Electric Power from notifying nearby communities that the groundwater around the Big Sandy Power Plant in Lawrence County could be contaminated.

“We wanted them to hear from us what the data was starting to show,” said John McManus, senior vice president of environmental services. “Particularly, as we talked about, for some of these parameters that have drinking water standards like arsenic.”

Threats To Surface Water

All of the testing so far has only looked at groundwater underneath the coal ash disposal sites and may not reflect the conditions farther away.

Abel Russ of the Environmental Integrity Project said if there is contamination, it’s most likely to affect private wells in communities near disposal sites.

“There’s no legal protection for those people, they are stuck with what they are drinking,” he said.

Depending on the flow of the groundwater, coal ash contamination could also affect surface water. These coal-fired power plants are typically next to rivers and large bodies of water; Russ said coal ash pollutants including mercury and selenium can build up in sediment and bio-accumulate in fish creating a hazard for entire food chains.

Selenium poisoning has already been documented in Herrington Lake. It’s a popular fishing and boating spot that also serves as a drinking water source for Danville, though for years regulators have known the coal ash site at Kentucky Utilities’ E.W. Brown plant was discharging into the lake.

Pollution from the coal ash pond at the Brown power plant seeps into Herrington Lake. Photo credit Kentucky Department of Environmental Protection.


And this problem of groundwater contamination compounds as you move downstream, said Tom FitzGerald of the Kentucky Resources Council.

“We as a nation, have developed an interesting way of utilizing our water resources, both as our toilet and our drinking sources,” FitzGerald said. “You have this legacy of all these ponds that are leaching levels of metals of concern that become part of the great background.”

The contamination is less of a threat to people who drink from treated water, said Mura, the state’s Energy and Environment Cabinet spokesman.

“Public drinking water sources are required to be treated prior to consumption in order to ensure that drinking water standards are complied with and human health protected,” Mura said.

State Response

The federal Environmental Protection Agency unveiled the new regulations for coal ash in 2015. The agency required utilities to comply, but didn’t create any mechanism to enforce the rules.

Instead, the agency left it up to the public to interpret the groundwater testing data and sue if they found evidence utilities were in violation.

States were also given an option of adopting the federal regulations to enforce the rules. Kentucky started down that path in 2015, but after more than a year of backroom meetings with utility industry representatives, the final version of the state’s rules didn’t pass legal muster.

A Franklin County Circuit Court judge overturned major parts of the Energy and Environment Cabinet’s coal ash rules earlier this year, and the state is back at the drawing board. This time, they’re meeting with stakeholders including environmental groups such as the Kentucky Resources Council.

Currently, the state has four field geologists that review groundwater monitoring data and about 60 inspectors who look at all types of waste facilities, including coal ash, state officials said.

Leachate seeping from a coal ash landfill at Big Rivers Electric Corporation’s Green Station in Henderson, Kentucky on June 6, 2017. Photo credit Kentucky Division of Waste Management.

The law allows regulators to fine polluters up to $25,000 per day in penalties, but the state often works with utilities to solve violations before they are issued.

“It’s often more important to get things fixed than to collect fines,” Mura said.

Right now, only two Kentucky coal ash sites are working through state-mandated corrective action: Big Rivers’ D.B. Wilson Power Plant in Western Kentucky and Kentucky Utilities’ E.W. Brown Generation Station near Danville. Coal ash pollution at both sites were the subject of WFPL News investigations last year.

Kentucky Spokesman John Mura said the state will enforce federal regulations as required.

“The Cabinet has the necessary tools at our disposal to address the issues, including inspections, agreed orders, administrative hearings,” he said.

He said because of this first round of testing, and early indications that the state’s utilities won’t meet federal standards, the Energy and Environment Cabinet has set up meetings with utilities to review current data and proactively address any problems.

What’s Next

Following the second round of testing, every coal ash site that is leaking will have to retrofit or close, according to EPA rules.

Utilities can choose to enclose the ash in place or remove it. If they close in place, the utility has to remove the water, install a cover and monitor the groundwater for at least 30 years.

“The whole idea of the contamination is that it’s kind of like a tea bag in a pond and it’s steeping out,” said Winkler, LG&E’s environmental programs manager.

Dry storage and cap systems will help prevent groundwater pollution, he said.

At least four of Kentucky’s largest utilities have already committed to closing their ash ponds and moving to dry storage, including Louisville Gas & Electric/Kentucky Utilities, Duke Energy, American Electric Power and Tennessee Valley Authority.

But the rules could change. In March, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt signed the first of two rules that would amend current coal ash regulations.

The proposal would allow states to ignore federal regulations and adopt their own standards, rules, remedies and in some cases, suspend groundwater monitoring altogether.

This article was originally published by Ohio Valley Resource.

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Groups Say Smart Reclamation Of Mine Lands Could Be “Appalachia’s New Deal”



Stream restoration work in progress on an old mining site in West Virginia. Photo: Courtesy CVI

From solar farms in Virginia to a green energy subdivision in Kentucky, a new report by a group of regional advocacy organizations highlights 20 ready-made projects across the Ohio Valley that could give abandoned mining operations that were never cleaned up a second life, and create new economic opportunity across the region.

In the report, released Tuesday, the Reclaiming Appalachia Coalition, which advocates for high-impact mine reclamation projects throughout Central Appalachia, says innovative mine reclamation “could be Appalachia’s New Deal.”

“This report marks an important step as Appalachia citizens continue to re-imagine and work toward a future of sustainable and healthy local economies, where young people can find meaningful work and stay to raise their own families,” Adam Wells, regional director of community and economic development with Appalachian Voices, said in a statement.

Courtesy Ohio Valley Mushroom Farm
Acid Mine Drainage (AMD) at an Ohio wetland.

Virginia-based Appalachian Voices is one of the members of the coalition. Other organizations include Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center in Kentucky, Coalfield Development Corporation in West Virginia, Rural Action in Ohio, and Downstream Strategies in West Virginia.

Projects highlighted in the report run the gamut and include proposals to use acid mine drainage in Perry County, Ohio, to create paint and a proposal by a West Virginia wholesaler to build a livestock processing facility in Kanawha County.

The region has struggled to clean up thousands of abandoned coal sites since the Abandoned Mine Land (AML) fund was created in 1976. State and local governments have sometimes struggled with how to find new uses for old mine sites, and some high-profile projects have fizzled.

In the report, the authors argue, well-planned reclamation projects can spur economic development and offer best practices for how they should be proposed. Those include selecting appropriate locations near infrastructure and ensuring redevelopment projects are environmentally sustainable and financially viable over the long term.

Stream restoration work in progress on an old mining site in West Virginia. Photo: Courtesy CVI

In recent years, Congress has boosted resources available for that effort. Beginning in 2017, more than $100 million was appropriated for the Abandoned Mine Land Pilot Program. Many of the projects highlighted in the report have applied for funding through the AML Pilot Program.

But another federal effort has not been passed by Congress despite bipartisan support. The “Revitalizing the Economy of Coal Communities by Leveraging Local Activities and Investing More,” or RECLAIM Act would accelerate reclamation of abandoned mine lands by dispersing $1 billion of Abandoned Mine Land funds over a 5-year period with an eye toward economic development.

Combined, the report’s authors say, the 20 projects would require about $38 million of investment but would generate more than $83 million in economic output as well about 540 jobs to the region.

This article was originally published by Ohio Valley ReSource

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Sports and Storytelling: ‘More a Unifier than a Divider’



A rusted field goal post and practice equipment sits on the practice field outside Municipal Stadium in Portsmouth, Ohio. Photo: Jack Shuler

When we launched our religion vertical, we said, “because religion is community” in Appalachia.  When we talked about a sports vertical, we said, “because sports is religion” here. It is a topic that transcends the playing field —  and brings many of Appalachia’s stories into focus – from the political to the economic to the cultural. Former ESPN sports editor Keith Reed and Pittsburgh native promises a complicated look at the region through this prism.

— 100 Days in Appalachia


Many people are going to see that 100 Days is launching a sports vertical and question it, thinking we’re now bringing them scores and draft updates, but that’s not exactly the goal. What is your vision for our work in this field?

I’m fascinated by sports as a cultural connective tissue. The games themselves are competitive entertainment, but how we consume sports gives us a great opportunity to examine where and how we live. There are so many examples, but the sports economy is a great one. You can tell a community’s priorities based on how it spends its money. Well, in the U.S., we spend billions of dollars every year on sporting events and related items and infrastructure. Professional team owners are mostly plutocrat billionaires. Big time college athletes are indentured labor to millionair coaches while generating billions of dollars for institutions under the guise of amateurism. This says a lot about where American priorities are, even though I’d guess “sports” isn’t the first thing that comes to people’s minds when you say, “Appalachia.”

We’re designing this vertical with that kind of context in mind. Everyone has instantaneous access to scores, stats, trade rumors and fantasy updates in their pockets. What they don’t have  that we can provide, is a way to pull back the curtain to see where sports is a barometer on where communities stand with regard to race, wealth, public policy and cultural understandings and divides. That’s where we come in.


Much like religion or food, sports is such an integral part of communities not just in Appalachia, but around the world. What is it about your life experience that makes it such an important topic to you?

Almost every kid has a sport they grew up playing, or watching or at least a team their parents loved. I grew up in Pittsburgh loving the Steelers, Pirates and Penguins. I played basketball. I still start or end most days with a boxing workout or exercising with a group organized by a friend who’s a former NFL player. I even coach a team in a women’s kickball league. My sons both grew up playing sports: football, track, wrestling, rugby.

So sports have been a major part of my personal life and I know how influential that can be. In your formative years, you might meet someone you never would have encountered but for the basketball court or football field. Whatever differences you have, you put away because you need your teammate to help make you better and help you win. Coaches can be enormous positive or negative influences. For elite athletes, sports can be life-changing or life-saving. I’ve seen sports across all those transformative aspects, and I believe most people, regardless of background, will be able to relate to those stories.


100 Days in Appalachia’s goal is to take back the narrative people on the outside looking in have created for our region and show the true diversity of this place. How will this vertical expand upon or support that mission?

Sports stories are almost perfect for creating a geographic and cultural sense-of-place. In two well-written paragraphs, I could contrast the atmospheres at a UVa basketball game and a Tennessee Titans game and you’d gain an appreciation for how different a college town in the hills of Virginia is from urbanized Nashville. The populations, infrastructure and community priorities and needs in those two places are very distinct, and that will show up in their sports fans.

One of my favorite stories I’ve ever edited was for ESPN the Magazine, for the very first “One Day-One Game” issue. We sent a bunch of writers and photographers to Houston to cover a Steelers-Texans game, and there was a piece about tailgating and how Steelers fans were exporting this white, working-class ethos and culture common to formerly immigrant communities with them. All those people moved in the 70s and 80s after the steel mills in Pittsburgh closed, and now there’s a diaspora of Pittsburghers living in other cities and following the team from stadium to stadium. A lot of what you see in some of the characters in that story, which I believe we did in 2011 or 2012, showed up at the polls and in the rhetoric around the presidential election in 2016. That tailgating story, about an old-school, blue-collar Pittsburgh guy who talked funny and drank a lot of beer, was a canary in the coal mine.


Rivalries in sports and the divides they create can be almost even more intense than the divisions created by our current political climate. How can storytelling and journalism in this area bring people together?

I think sports fandom, especially rivalries, are more a unifier than divider. Think about that kid who meets somebody from across town on the basketball court. As adults, they may move to different parts of the country, have different levels of education and income, but they keep up with each other over social media and they find common ground in their rooting allegiances. There’s no easier way to get people who’ve grown apart or who have very little else in common than sports trash talk.

I’m a Red Sox fan who lived in Boston and wrote about the team, who dated a Yankees fan.  I’m a Pittsburgh native who’s lived in every other AFC North city, plus Boston. I have friends from Baltimore, Boston, Cincy and Cleveland — all these cities that are supposed to be “rivals” because of sports. Yet, sports is the thing that brings us together. So I think our storytelling can be an entry point for lowering some of the polarized rhetoric from other parts of our lives and engaging one another as fans, and then as people.


What is the potential impact you hope to see?

I don’t have any agenda besides finding and telling good stories. I’ve never done a geocentric, hyper-regional sort of journalism project like this before, so I’m happy to explore what that looks like. I’d like to give opportunity to some talented, young and hungry writers with a passion for telling interesting stories and seeing where those stories lead. That could mean something investigative centered around college athletics or it could be something more fun and interesting. At this point, I just want the storytelling to be good and well-received.

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‘If We Can’t Mine Coal, What Are We Going To Do?’



In this excerpt from the book After Coal, documentary filmmaker Tom Hansell describes how his media work in the coalfields of Central Appalachia led to a different understanding about what might come next for coal communities.

“EPA = Expanding Poverty in America.”  

See also: BEYOND COAL: Appalachia and Wales. Jim Branscome reviews Tom Hansell’s book “After Coal”

This statement is written in three-foot-high letters on a banner stretched over a bandstand in a public park in Pikeville, Kentucky. It is June 2012 and I am just starting production of the After Coal documentary. The crowd around me is dressed in the reflective stripes of mining uniforms or in T-shirts reading Friends of Coal and Walker Heavy Machinery. I am documenting a coal industry-sponsored pep rally before a public hearing on new water-quality regulations proposed for mountaintop-removal coal mines.  

The speaker onstage is speaking proudly of his family’s heritage in the coal industry. He concludes his passionate statement with a question: “If we can’t mine coal, what are we going to do in eastern Kentucky?” 

Good question. As a filmmaker who has spent my career living and working in the coalfields of eastern Kentucky and documenting coal-mining issues, this is an important and difficult question to answer. My earlier documentaries Coal Bucket Outlaw (2002) and The Electricity Fairy (2010) were intended to start a civil conversation between workers in the coal industry and other community members about a shared vision for good jobs, clean air, clean water, and a safe working environment. However, the conversations almost always broke down as soon as someone pointed out the obvious: the coal industry had long been the only model of economic development in the central Appalachian region. More examples of what life after coal might look like were desperately needed to move the conversation forward.  

As I struggled with the haunting question “If we can’t mine coal, what are we going to do?” the image of Welsh mining villages rising from the ashes left by the coal industry captured my imagination. I thought that if I could just learn a few details about how Welsh communities made the transition, then I could identify specific solutions to help coal communities in Appalachia. However, I quickly learned that the secret to life after coal was not that simple. …  

The author (holding the boom mic). (Photo provided.)

On my own quest for solutions, in 1990, I began my career at Appalshop, a rural, multidisciplinary arts center located in Whitesburg, Kentucky—the heart of the central Appalachian coalfields. From my young and naively privileged perspective, moving to eastern Kentucky was an act of opposition to the materialistic consumer-driven world. I had a goal of living self-sufficiently, fulfilling my needs with what I could make or grow, and buying as little as possible. And, as an aspiring environmental activist, the clear moral lines around the issues in the Kentucky coalfields, especially strip mining, were appealing. The battle call of union songs such as “Which Side Are You On” charged up my little post-punk heart.  

However, my experience at Appalshop quickly taught me that the struggles of coal communities were not as simple or straightforward as I had imagined. Working as part of this artistic collective, I produced radio and video documentaries and taught community media workshops. As a young artist and activist, I quickly absorbed Appalshop’s mantra of providing a platform for mountain people to speak in their own words about issues that affect their lives. I attended hundreds of community meetings: school board, the fiscal court, mine permit hearings, and union meetings. I also documented dozens of direct actions where citizens blocked roads to stop mining, took over government offices to protest the lack of enforcement, and set up picket lines to enforce union contracts.  

Retired Welsh miner and labor leader Terry Thomas (left) meets retired Kentucky miner Carl Shoupe (right). (Screenshot from the documentary, After Coal)

My experiences working on the front lines of the environmental justice movement in Appalachia gradually developed my understanding of the complexities of how culture, place, and politics had shaped the situations I was documenting. I witnessed firsthand the incredible power of community to support people as they faced threats against their homes and families. As a result, I expanded my ideas about self-sufficiency from an individualistic vision of each person taking care of their own needs to a larger vision of individuals living in symbiosis with their neighbors and the natural environment—community self-sufficiency. 

Participating in cultural exchanges at Appalshop also provided me with valuable lessons. Meeting artists from the mountains of western China and rural Indonesia opened my eyes to some of the universal challenges faced by regional cultures in an increasingly globalized economy. I hoped that an international exchange with another coal-mining region such as south Wales could identify resources and strategies that would help Appalachian coalfield communities create a future beyond coal.  

The process of creating the After Coal documentary took more than five years. During that time, I learned to stop looking for concrete solutions and start supporting an ongoing conversation about how to create healthy communities in former coal-mining regions. International efforts to address climate change make this challenge especially intense for coal-producing regions. As our economy shifts from fossil fuels, how can we ensure that places where fossil fuels were extracted do not continue to bear an unfair share of the costs of extraction?  

I believe there are as many solutions for life after coal as there are residents of mining communities. I hope these stories from south Wales and central Appalachia will inspire people to discover solutions that work in their home communities. 

This article was originally published by Daily Yonder.

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