Report: Other States Have Safely Closed Coal Ash Ponds, So Can Indiana

Nov 16, 2020

An aerial image of NIPSCO's Michigan City coal plant.
Credit Courtesy of NIPSCO

Indiana lags behind other states when it comes to closing toxic coal ash ponds safely. That’s according to a new report by the Hoosier Environmental Council. 

Coal ash is a byproduct of burning coal. Exposure to it can cause cancer, damage your nervous system, and cause other health problems.

Indra Frank with the HEC said other states — like Virginia, Florida, Tennessee, Georgia, and the Carolinas — have shown coal ash can be contained safely in cement or in lined landfills on high ground. North Carolina alone has required Duke Energy to excavate 80 million tons of coal ash at its facilities in the state.

“Yet in Indiana, we're seeing the state starting to approve plans that would leave coal ash in the floodplain and contaminating groundwater," she said.

Instead of removing the coal ash, some Indiana utilities’ plans call for capping ponds in place without a protective liner. 

"Building a cap over the top of the coal ash prevents precipitation from soaking downward into the coal ash," Frank said. "But if the bottom of the ash is unlined and deep enough, the groundwater still comes into contact with coal ash — and anytime water is in contact with coal ash, we get contamination of the water."

READ MORE: NIPSCO Postpones Removing Coal Ash From Michigan City Ponds

Angeline Protogere is a spokesperson for Duke Energy in Indiana. She said the utility plans to cap half of its coal ash ponds in place and excavate the other half. Though Frank said some of that excavated ash will be consolidated into other capped ponds. 

Protogere said every coal ash pond is different and requires careful engineering, which is why federal law allows for both kinds of closures.

“It's not a one size fits all approach, as this report advocates," she said.

Though just how protective capping in place is has been challenged in court. Protogere said Duke also plans to monitor the groundwater at capped sites for at least 30 years.

Coal ash concerns have already forced some Indiana utilities to provide municipal or bottled water to residents in the past — such as in the town of Pines near NIPSCO coal ash disposal sites as well as people living near Duke Energy’s Cayuga, Gibson and Noblesville plants.

Protegere said Duke Energy found elevated levels of boron at those sites, but the federal government doesn’t regulate boron in drinking water. She said providing other options for those residents was done out of an abundance of caution. 

The report said since new limits on coal ash in wastewater were put in place in 2015, many utilities now use dry ash storage instead of ponds. 

Contact Rebecca at rthiele@iu.edu or follow her on Twitter at @beckythiele.

Indiana Environmental reporting is supported by the Environmental Resilience Institute, an Indiana University Grand Challenge project developing Indiana-specific projections and informed responses to problems of environmental change.