BATAVIA, Ohio -- Duke Energy says it's still deciding what to do with millions of tons of toxic coal ash that for decades was buried in unlined ponds along the Ohio River in Clermont County.
Those details and more were part an update delivered to Clermont Commissioners Wednesday from Duke Energy on its plans for the W.C. Beckjord power plant. In 2014, Duke Energy closed the plant, which span hundreds of acres of riverfront in New Richmond and Pierce Township.
Leaders in Clermont say the property could offer big redevelopment opportunities or pose big problems for the region’s drinking water if not cleaned up properly.
“When Duke (closed) the plant it was a tremendous blow to the local economy,” said David Uible, vice president of the commission. “It would be wonderful see some economic development activity in that area.”
Long term, officials in Clermont County say the property could be redeveloped for office space or even remade into a port for barge traffic along the Ohio River. As part of Beckjord’s operations, Duke Energy maintains a permit that allowed it to operate a port on the site where materials – largely coal – were delivered.
“Our desire would be that Duke not allow that permit to expire, but convey it to the county,” said Bob Proud, commission president. “To lose that would be a great loss to the county.”
But those opportunities won’t be possible, Clermont officials say, if the property isn’t properly cleaned up.
Of most immediate concern are four unlined ponds at the Beckjord plant that are packed with coal ash -- the waste left over when coal is burned to make electricity. It contains toxic heavy metals including arsenic, chromium and vanadium.
The ponds are right next to the river – a source of drinking water for more than 5 million people in Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky. The ponds also sit next to Clermont County’s public drinking water wells.
An aerial view of the W.C. Beckjord Power Plant in Clermont County. Emily Maxwell | WCPO
Clermont County officials want Duke Energy to remove the coal ash from at least two ponds.
“Our largest well field is right by the ash ponds,” Proud said. “That’s our biggest concern. We had to close one well already.”
In the late 1980’s, pollution from one of the ponds forced Clermont County to shut down a public drinking well that served thousands of area residents. In North Carolina, where Duke Energy is headquartered, the company has faced numerous lawsuits and fines from leaking coal ash ponds there.
On Wednesday, the utility said it is considering Clermont’s request to remove some of the coal ash.
“As we develop our closure and decommissioning plans, we continue to comply with state and federal laws and regulations,” Duke Energy spokesman Warren Walker said. “Any closure plan we decide on has to be approved by the (Ohio) EPA, and you can rest assure it will be a safe solution for this community and environment.”
Walker said the company expects to have a more comprehensive plan to share in the first half of 2017. Any plant it presents will require approval from Ohio EPA.