NEW RICHMOND, Ohio – The Duke Energy power plant that spilled thousands of gallons of diesel fuel into the Ohio River late Monday has been written up by federal agents in the past.
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Coast Guard officials estimated about 5,000 gallons of the fuel spilled during a routine transfer at Duke Energy's W.C. Beckjord Station in New Richmond at about 11:15 p.m. Monday.
But according to documents uncovered by the I-Team, the EPA had concerns before the spill of other foreign substances from the plant that were ending up in the river – and possibly in the region’s supply of drinking water.
According to a state permit, Duke's Beckjord Station is allowed to release thousands of pounds of oil and grease directly into the river every day – and a water supply intake is downstream from the plant.
Other contaminants allowed out of these pipes include small levels of mercury and arsenic, the permit states.
When renewing the permit in 2013, the state of Ohio called for "new monitoring for arsenic, barium and zinc... based on the reasonable potential to exceed water quality standards" at the plant.
Since the 1960s "fly ash, boiler slag and other waste water" has been dumped into coal ash ponds next to the plant and river, where "solids settle to the bottom and oil and grease is skimmed off as the wastewater leaves the ponds," according to state documents.
An ash pond is an engineered structure for the disposal of power plant byproducts.
Duke is allowed to release wastewater from these ponds directly into the Ohio River, state documents show.
The EPA and Aerospace giant Lockheed Martin completed a 200-page safety assessment of the plant’s coal ash ponds in 2010, describing their condition as "poor."
Inspectors concluded "remedial action is necessary" because "a sudden failure of the structure would result in... disruption of a public water treatment facility, release of health hazardous industrial or commercial waste."
Engineers noted erosion on the retaining dikes, rodent burrows, sink holes, slides and mature trees growing in the middle of the pond.
In 1999, the plant reported "a significant drop in pond water elevation” and divers identified the problem as “holes" in the overflow pipe.
"Some ash escaped into pond run creek exceeding... limits before corrective action could be taken,” inspectors said.
State engineers were also troubled by Duke's inspection practices.
"It does not appear that Duke Energy has adequate inspection practices,” the engineers wrote in an assessment of the plant. “Currently, observations by plant personnel consist of 'drive-by inspections.'"
Duke Energy is in the process of permanently closing the plant by Jan. 1, 2015.
A spokesperson for the company told the I-Team Tuesday the coal ash ponds will be closed after the plant is shut down.
However, Duke spokesperson Erin Culbert said it hasn’t determined yet how the ponds will be closed.
“Conditions for basin closure are site-specific, so we are performing scientific and engineering evaluations at each plant site to inform basin closure,” Culbert said. “Basins can be closed in a variety of ways, including excavating and relocating the ash, sealing the ash with a synthetic barrier or a combination of those. We would only recommend a capping approach if engineering studies determine it would protect groundwater long-term.”
Culbert said Duke has fixed the problems outlined in the EPA’s 2010 report.
She released the following statement Tuesday afternoon:
EPA Inspections: Safe and environmentally sound operations are top priority at all Duke Energy facilities. Following the TVA Kingston coal ash release in 2008, U.S. EPA performed inspections of each ash basin in the country. EPA consultants issued their inspection at the W.C. Beckjord Station in March 2010. EPA issued “poor” ratings for basins when original engineering designs and other documentation were not available at the time of the inspection. EPA’s inspection noted minor maintenance issues at Beckjord but no issues of immediate concern. The company completed the maintenance issues identified by EPA and continues to inspect the Beckjord ash basins regularly. We further formalized that inspection process following the TVA event, and this now includes a monthly inspection by Duke personnel, an annual inspection by a third-party geotechnical consultant and an inspection at least every five years by Ohio DNR. By nature of work at the site, the dams are usually observed much more frequently than monthly as well.
Please see the company’s April 27, 2010, response to recommendations outlined in EPA’s inspection report.
NPDES permit: Like all our power plants, the Beckjord Station operates with a wastewater discharge permit that allows treated wastewater from the plant process to return to the local water body, in this case the Ohio River. State permit writers review these permits every five years and design the permit limits conservatively to protect water quality in the Ohio River. The Beckjord Station received its most recent permit from Ohio EPA a few months ago.
Ash basin closures: Duke Energy has been modernizing its power plants for several years, which includes retiring older, less efficient coal units. The Beckjord Station had six coal units. Units 1-4 have been retired, and we expect to retire the remaining two units by Jan. 1, 2015. Duke Energy will be permanently closing the ash basins at the Beckjord site once they are no longer needed, and engineering work is under way now to help develop a closure strategy for those basins that will protect the environment.
WCPO Web Editor Maxim Alter contributed to this report.