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Clermont officials cast wary eye on new owner at former Beckjord site, weighing new jobs and site cleanup

A Georgetown man buys Beckjord parcels, adjacent to coal ash storage pits
Some former Beckjord coal plant land was bought by a Georgetown man in January 2023.
Posted at 5:04 PM, Apr 24, 2023

PIERCE TOWNSHIP — A Brown County farmer and business owner bought a large portion of the former Walter C. Beckjord coal plant site in January and is now considering how to develop it.

Delbert Aicholtz, 70, of Georgetown owns a large farm and an internet business and said he is a real estate developer and builder. He declined an interview with WCPO, citing his farming workload this time of year, but said he is open to “everything” when it comes to development with a goal to create jobs.

He bought eight parcels which total 294 acres, of both hillside and riverfront land, close to areas where leftover coal ash is stored, according to county auditor records and court filings.

Local officials are both optimistic about the prospect of new jobs and tax revenue, yet worried about the environmental consequences of development and liability.

“Who really wants to set up shop sitting next to thousands of tons of ash that’s buried in the ground 50 feet away from where you’re going to be working?” Pierce Township trustee Allen Freeman said. “So that’s a bit disconcerting to anybody who would come in and want to buy that property.”

Pierce Township Trustee Allen Freeman.
Pierce Township Trustee Allen Freeman.

Freeman was surprised by the sale because the township had no advance discussions with Aicholtz. He described it as a “very tricky” site and said he expected a corporate conglomerate rather than an individual investor to buy it.

“We have to have a certain level of assurance that this is going to be a place that’s going to be safe for anybody who would want to put a factory or an office or anything else on that site,” Freeman said. “This is a very complex kind of economic development deal.”

Duke promises "safe" closure of toxic ponds

The W.C. Beckjord Station, a closed Duke Energy power plant located 20 miles east of Cincinnati, contains more than 10 billion pounds of toxins that are packed into ponds along the banks of the Ohio River.

Built in the 1950s as a coal-burning giant, the Beckjord plant pumped electricity to hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses across Southwest Ohio.

For decades Clermont County was flush with tax revenue from Beckjord near New Richmond and the William H. Zimmer coal plant in Moscow. It paved roads, built new fire stations and schools opened a community center, and replaced household septic tanks with municipally treated water.

But that coal revenue is evaporating. Duke Energy closed Beckjord in 2014 and sold the site to Missouri-based Commercial Liability Partners four years later.

Some former Beckjord coal plant land was bought by a Georgetown man in January 2023.
Some former Beckjord coal plant land was bought by a Georgetown man in January 2023.

Then Texas-based Vistra Corp. closed the Zimmer plant last May— five years ahead of schedule. It has not announced plans to redevelop the site.

Meanwhile, CLP demolished the Beckjord plant and is cleaning up the site hoping to attract new development.

Aicholtz is the first known buyer of what amounts to nearly one-quarter of the site’s nearly 1,200 total acreages.

Over the years Clermont leaders have frequently complained about the lack of information from CLP and mediocre oversight from the Ohio EPA.

Drone footage of the former Beckjord site on April 18, 2023.
Drone footage of the former Beckjord site on April 18, 2023.

That’s because six million cubic yards of leftover coal fly ash are stored in manmade ponds along the Ohio River, which is a drinking water source for more than 5 million people.

These unlined ash ponds are in the river’s floodplain and directly upstream from the county’s primary drinking water wellfields, which serve 130,000 people.

Coal fly ash is a by-product of burning coal, which contains contaminants such as mercury and arsenic, the U.S. EPA states on its website.

County leaders worry that coal ash is leaking into the groundwater.They want the ash removed from the man-made pits and taken to a sanitary lined landfill.

Some former Beckjord coal plant land was bought by a Georgetown man in January 2023.
Some former Beckjord coal plant land was bought by a Georgetown man in January 2023.

But that’s not what CLP is doing. The company and its subsidiary, New Richmond Development Corp., are relocating coal ash from the oldest pond on the site — Pond A — to another unlined pond on the south side of the property, Pond C.

CLP, which still owns more than 900 acres of the site, did not respond to a request for comment.

Some parcels that Aicholtz purchased are on the Ohio River very close to coal ash ponds. Other parcels are undeveloped land on a nearby hillside where the former Cincinnati Gas and Electric Company operated a long-term ash disposal site bordered by Beckjord, Nelp and Pond Run Roads, according to court filings and auditor records.

Some former Beckjord coal plant land was bought by a Georgetown man in January 2023.
Some former Beckjord coal plant land was bought by a Georgetown man in January 2023.

Auditor records do not disclose how much the entity controlled by Aicholtz, TBDA Investments LLC, paid for the parcels.

“What I would like to see are things that are pointed toward next-generation technologies and industries,” Freeman said. “It’s a great story to tell when you’ve got a 1956 technology that was dirty and polluting and you can move to now 21st century technologies and jobs.”

Freeman would prefer development that provides good-paying jobs, and doesn’t want to see storage warehouses or gravel or concrete factories moving onto Aicholtz’s land.

New Richmond Vice Mayor Larry Prues
New Richmond Vice Mayor Larry Prues

New Richmond Vice Mayor Larry Prues agreed, hoping that new jobs bring in much-needed income tax revenue to the village.

“Any kind of tax revenue that could be reaped from the development would take the burden off where we are financially,” said Prues, who noted that officials were forced to enact an earnings tax on residents to avoid dissolving the village after Beckjord closed.

“I would like to see advanced manufacturing that would require some highly skilled technical employees,” Prues said. “If we can get some interest from developers to do something with the sight, the 1,200 acres there has a huge potential and it's only 20 minutes to downtown Cincinnati and 10 minutes to I-275.”

While the site has plenty of advantages, including access to the Ohio River by port, there are also challenges.

It lacks public sewer and water lines, which officials admit will hinder some development. But Freeman and Prues said they are open to talking about how to provide new infrastructure for the right project.

“There are water lines that could come from New Richmond but there’s also water lines that could come from Pierce Township. We can work through that issue … it’s just an expensive proposition,” Freeman said.

Environmental attorney Dave Altman.
Environmental attorney Dave Altman.

But environmental attorney Dave Altman said that digging into potentially contaminated land to install new water and sewer lines would create “preferential pathways,” for toxins to spread quickly to new areas.

“The last thing in the world you want to do is cut a trench underneath the ground because when you put in a pipe, a sewer or a water line, you put it in some kind of material like gravel, the contamination will move faster through it,” Altman said. “Let's say the contamination isn't on the new property yet. It's moving slowly through whatever medium below the ground is there. It hits that pathway and takes off like a highway.”

Altman sued CLP in 2019 and again in 2022 on behalf of 100 residents. He says the developer breached a 1986 agreement with then Beckjord owner CG&E that allegedly entitles residents to more information about contaminated waste disposal. And that no agency, including the Ohio EPA, is actively regulating coal ash at the Beckjord site.

Coal ash exposure causes a higher risk of cancer in the skin, liver, bladder and lungs, as well as neurological and psychiatric effects, cardiovascular impacts, damage to blood vessels, and anemia. It also threatens plant and animal wildlife, causing elevated selenium levels in migratory birds, wetland vegetative damage, fish kills, fish and amphibian deformities, and plant toxicity, according to one lawsuit.

Coal ash pits at the former Beckjord coal plant near New Richmond, Clermont County.
Coal ash pits at the former Beckjord coal plant near New Richmond, Clermont County.

Altman reviewed the parcels that Aicholtz purchased. The hillside properties are located near long-term ash disposal sites which are “totally un-evaluated … so that needs to be fully delineated,” he said.

Residents of this hillside area have recently complained to WCPO about a steady flow of large-load dump trucks and bulldozers on land that is still owned by CLP and NRDC.

“New Richmond Development Corp (NRDC) is excavating soil for pond cover material and hauling it to the ash ponds for construction of clay cap on the pond C extension. Ohio EPA conducted an inspection of the site, including this activity, on April 11. This material and its use are permitted in the Pond C Extension permit … issued in 2020,” said Ohio EPA spokesperson Dina Pierce.

She said the property owner has not submitted plans or applications for water or sewer lines to the Ohio EPA, and if he did, “the applications would be reviewed through Ohio EPA’s permit review process.”

Duke promises "safe" closure of toxic ponds

The W.C. Beckjord Station, a closed Duke Energy power plant located 20 miles east of Cincinnati, contains more than 10 billion pounds of toxins that are packed into ponds along the banks of the Ohio River.

Altman has separate concerns about the parcels that Aicholtz purchased along the Ohio River, near coal ash pond embankments: “the properties he's bought are in the direct zone of catastrophic collapse.”

 But a 2021 inspection by Gemini Engineering on behalf of NRDC, for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, noted that Ash Pond B, Ash Pond C and Ash Pond C Extension dams had good general structural conditions, based on visual inspections and were “reasonably well maintained.”

But Altman is steadfast in his skepticism.

"We have many concerns," Altman said. "What is behind buying contaminated property when most people won't touch it?"

And for his part, Prues is cautiously optimistic about the future of a site that could directly impact the financial future of New Richmond.

 “It would be devastating if the remediation wasn’t done correctly so that for some reason the land would not be developable for commercial or industrial use,” Prues said."“Where else are you going to find that many acres of developable property?”

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