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Report: Coal Ash Waste a Threat to Hoosier Health

PHOTO: Indianapolis Power and Light's Harding Street Generating Station is among the coal ash disposal sites listed in a new report detailing the danger of coal ash to public health. Photo courtesy of the Environmental Protection Agency.
PHOTO: Indianapolis Power and Light's Harding Street Generating Station is among the coal ash disposal sites listed in a new report detailing the danger of coal ash to public health. Photo courtesy of the Environmental Protection Agency.
May 8, 2014

INDIANAPOLIS – Indiana has the highest number of coal ash sludge lagoons in the country, and a new report from the Hoosier Environmental Council alleges that mismanagement is threatening public health.

When coal is burned, trace elements including arsenic, lead and mercury can remain in the ash.

Study lead author Tim Maloney, senior policy director for the Hoosier Environmental Council, says most disposal sites do not have a liner, which serves as a barrier between ash and groundwater.

And he adds that without one, there is increased risk for surface or groundwater contamination.

"If the ash is disposed of under the exact kind of conditions that can contribute groundwater contamination, and if that groundwater is used for drinking water wells, then you're exposing humans to serious health problems," Maloney stresses.

According to the report, one of the 17 Indiana power plants where coal ash is disposed of in ash ponds is the Indianapolis Power and Light's Harding Street Generating Station, where all but one of the eight ash ponds are unlined, and the ponds are located near drinking water sources.

Generating plants owned by other electric companies with similar surface coal ash sludge lagoons are located across the state.

According to the findings, Indiana has one of the worst records in the nation for spills, with 10 contaminated sites, and three coal ash spills.

The most serious damage in Indiana occurred in Town of Pines near Michigan City, where coal ash contaminated private water wells, leaving the residents' water unfit to drink.

Most of the town was designated a Superfund site, and Maloney says it's now the target of a cleanup plan.

"Extensive land and water contamination from coal ash that was dumped into a nearby landfill as well as used as fill throughout the town for their roads with serious consequences for many people in that little community," he explains.

Coal ash is currently exempt from federal regulation as a hazardous waste, and Maloney says that's why more oversight is needed to protect the public's health.

"We have a very dangerous waste, it includes a lot of toxic contaminants, state or federal government is not taking appropriate steps to make sure it's disposed of safely," he stresses.

The Environmental Protection Agency is considering a new federal rule to regulate coal ash disposal in landfills, ponds and lagoons, which is due by December 19.

Mary Kuhlman, Public News Service - IN