OPINION: Coal ash oversight essential

2017-05-19 | The Evening News and The Tribune

May 19--"Power to the people" isn't cheap. Electricity is costly to provide and consume and, when it comes to coal-fired power plants, clean up.

Duke Energy's Gallagher Station, which has provided the energy to cool our homes, refrigerate our food and give light to our darkness for decades, is being retired. Duke Energy is decommissioning older power plants as it leans more heavily on newer methods of energy production, such as coal gasification at plants like the one at Edwardsport.

As Gallagher station ratchets down in the coming years, Duke Energy is considering the best options on complying with environmental regulations on cleanup of coal ash, the waste produced from burning coal. It contains toxins that can be harmful to people at certain levels of exposure.

Gallagher is among more than a dozen plants being decommissioned, and it'll be expensive. As reported by the News and Tribune's Elizabeth Beilman, Duke Energy estimates ash basin closure in Indiana will cost $1 billion over the next 10 years. Consumers will pay the bill with increased rates, provided the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission approves Duke's plan.

Monday night's public meeting, where the company outlined its coal ash management plan, was attended by only a handful of stakeholders.

We all have a stake in the cleanup -- and we should pay close attention.

The Indiana Department of Environmental Management is reviewing Duke's plan to dispose of coal ash from two of its basins into a regulated landfill and to "safely close in place on the property" three others.

It's the latter plan that has the Hoosier Environmental Council paying attention. Its senior policy director, Tim Maloney, attended the meeting to voice concern over keeping the coal ash in place, so close to the Ohio River aquifers, the source of our drinking water.

Duke Energy spokeswoman Angeline Protogere explained that the process involves draining water, drying ash, covering basins with a liner and monitoring groundwater contaminants. There are protections in place, she said, even after the coal ash containment is complete. The power company would have to monitor groundwater and send findings to the state for 30 years -- maybe longer if there's a problem. Remediation could also be required to address issues if they arise.

Maloney articulated his concerns: "If there's nothing in between the ash and the aquifer, then there's going to be contamination because these riverside groundwater systems are hydrologically connected to the river. In other words, water exchanges back and forth from the groundwater to the river."

Drying coal ash in ponds decreases the chances of contaminants infiltrating groundwater, Protogere said.

The EPA regulates standards on drinking water to ensure it's safe for human consumption. While it doesn't stipulate, for example, levels of boron in drinking water, it does issue health advisory maximum levels of 2 or 3 milligrams of boron per liter for children, depending on exposure times.

According to Maloney's review of Duke's plan, testing last year showed one well with groundwater levels at 22 milligrams of boron per liter.

But that's one well, and boron, a mineral found in water, can be beneficial to the body, as well, according to webmd.com. Some people take boron supplements to build stronger bones, among other medicinal purposes, the site states.

It's hard for the average person to know what to think. That's why we rely on oversight by the EPA to help safeguard us. But President Donald Trump has proposed cutting the EPA budget by nearly one-third -- to $5.7 billion from $8.1 billion -- eliminating one-fourth of the agency's 15,000 jobs, the New York Times reports. Congress is weighing the cost-reduction outcomes as legislators consider Trump's spending plan.

We urge residents to pay attention to what happens with the coal ash -- the News and Tribune will -- and educate yourselves as much as possible. It won't affect us as much as it will future generations, our kids and grandkids.

Readers should tell their Congressional representatives to fully fund the EPA, lest our water monitoring be lost in the priorities shuffle sure to occur with less money and fewer people.

You can also tell IDEM what you think of Duke Energy's coal ash cleanup-containment plan. Here's how: Email comments to Nick Batton, IDEM permit manager, at nbatton@idem.IN.gov or mail them to IGCN 1101, 100 North Senate Avenue, Indianapolis, IN 46204.

-- The News and Tribune editorial board is comprised of Publisher Bill Hanson, Editor Susan Duncan, Digital Editor Claire White, Assistant Editor Chris Morris and Assistant Editor Jason Thomas.