GHENT, KY — Construction noise echoes across the once-peaceful hills surrounding the Ghent Generating Station as crews move millions of cubic yards of coal ash on the Kentucky Utilities property near the Ohio River.
Jessica Rowles, 24, a married mother of a 2-year-old son, lives on one of those hills in Gallatin County, about 50 miles southwest of Cincinnati.
"There can't possibly be anything good that comes from living that close to an ash pond," said Rowles as she stood at the end of her driveway overlooking KU's property. "I worry about it. I really do."
A 2019 report by the Environmental Integrity Project named the Ghent Generating Station one of the "ten worst contaminated" coal ash sites in the United States.
The EIP report said the groundwater monitoring wells at the Ghent power plant had lithium levels up to 154 times the amount considered safe.
It was one of the highest lithium levels documented at 265 coal power plant sites identified in the report.
Lithium is used as a treatment for some patients with bipolar depression, but it has also been linked to kidney and neurological damage, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency.
"It's nasty stuff," said Abel Russ, one of the principal researchers and writers of the 2019 EIP report. "It's something that comes up with coal ash a lot."
The William H. Zimmer Power Plant in Clermont County also has groundwater with unsafe lithium levels, according to the plant's 2020 groundwater monitoring report.
But lithium isn't regulated in drinking water, which means local water districts don't test for it.
That includes water districts in communities next to massive coal ash containment areas with documented unsafe lithium levels.
"I won't drink it," said Rowles, who gets her water from Carroll County Water District in Ghent.
CCWD's water is "safe" and meets national drinking water standards, according to District Manager Obe Cox.
"Based on current information, we believe that we do not have an issue," Cox wrote in an email response to questions from the WCPO 9 I-Team.
EPA wants sample testing for these contaminants to begin in 2023-2025.
The WCPO 9 I-Team wanted to know more about the potential harm posed by unsafe levels of lithium in groundwater and what's being done to address it, particularly in Ghent, which is so close to hundreds of acres of coal ash on KU's property.
Our investigation Closed and Undisclosed has examined the impact of coal ash, those responsible for it, and how it's being cleaned up and contained primarly at closed coal-fired power plants and the sites scheduled to shut down within the next decade.
The I-Team has also reported extensively on the effect of the power plant closures on residents, the environment and the economy.
But the Ghent Generating Station isn't planning to shut down.
In fact, it appears to be thriving.
And that, along with KU's assurances that the utility has everything under control, is enough to satisfy some public officials.
"I personally have confidence in the people at that plant to do the right thing," Carroll County Judge Executive Harold "Shorty" Tomlinson said. "I can't say anything bad about them."
Tomlinson said he's not concerned about what national environmental groups think of the risks associated with coal ash on KU's property.
"If everybody would take care of their own part of the country the way they see fit, I think we'd probably be better off," Tomlinson said.
The biggest problems near Ghent are road conditions and traffic, not coal ash, according to Tomlinson.
Rowles said many people in the community support KU and don't appreciate the coal ash problem because they can't see how it's impacting them.
"I usually don't hear anything about it," Rowles said.
In February, the United States Geological Survey released findings of a new study of lithium in groundwater.
"About 45% of public-supply wells and about 37% of U.S. domestic supply wells have concentrations of lithium that could present a potential human-health risk," according to the USGS report.
The data came from National Water-Quality Assessment projects taken in more than 3,000 untreated groundwater wells from 1991-2018, according to the USGS website.
The USGS map of the areas included in the report shows no samples from Ghent or other communities near coal-fired power plants within a one-hour drive of Cincinnati.
"Because of the variability of lithium concentrations from well to well, I can't speculate on the concentrations in that area, wrote USGS Groundwater Status and Trends Coordinator Bruce Lindsey in an email response to the I-Team's questions about the report. "We did evaluate potential sources of lithium, but only for large, national data sets."
Lindsey said the study didn't consider if coal ash in some communities contributed to high lithium levels detected in groundwater.
Threat to drinking water?
In the early 2000s, residents in Town of Pines, Indiana, complained about the "bad taste" of their drinking water, according to EPA's 2016 Record of Decision report on the case.
EPA tests detected unsafe levels of arsenic, boron and molybdenum in private wells used for drinking water in the community.
The EPA blamed the contamination on a leeching coal ash landfill and coal ash spread throughout the community, according to the 2016 report.
EPA classified Town of Pines as an "Alternative Superfund Site."
Residents received bottled water until they could get municipal water piped into their homes.
In 2015, after extensive cleanup and monitoring, EPA said the wells were no longer contaminated.
Town of Pines is one of 40 "proven damage" cases of coal ash contaminating public water wells, rivers, lakes and other environmental damage, according to a 2014 EPA report.
KU has downplayed the risk posed by contaminated groundwater on the company's property near Ghent.
"No groundwater in the vicinity of any of our power plants is used for -- or considered a threat to -- any drinking water supplies," wrote LGE/KU's Vice-President of Communications and Corporate Responsibility Chris Whelan in an email response to the I-Team's questions.
But national environmental groups insist that contaminated groundwater at the Ghent Generating station is a potential threat to drinking water.
"I think it's similar to other sites, but worse," Russ said.
Russ said he bases his opinion on public reports utilities are required to post online for most coal ash sites.
The 2019 EIP report on coal ash used those public reports to determine the level of contamination at plants around the country.
At KU's Ghent plant, initial test samples from a groundwater monitoring well showed "super high" lithium levels, according to Russ.
That extraordinarily high lithium level helped place Ghent on the 10 worst contaminated list.
Since then, some of the highest levels seen initially at Ghent and other plants have dropped dramatically in some wells.
"They were accurate readings when they did it," Russ said.
Some utilities criticized the EIP report for "cherry-picking" extremely high early test results from new monitoring wells that didn't accurate reflect the level of contamination at current and former coal-fired power plants.
"EIP cited many of the outliers that were eliminated from the Ghent data-set prior to publication of the EIP report," Whelan wrote. "The EIP study also does not acknowledge progress and reporting associated with the company’s ongoing CCR Rule compliance plans, including those at Ghent Station."
Russ acknowledged that the higher initial levels of contamination are somewhat of a "mystery" that may partly be the result of more suspended sediment in well water following the drilling of those monitoring wells.
"It's still very contaminated and I think it would be in the top 10 or 20" in the country, Russ said.
KU's groundwater monitoring reports claim "no adjoining properties are expected to be impacted" by contaminants detected in the wells.
The EIP report said it's "difficult" determining the quality of drinking water in communities close to coal ash sites.
"Most often, neither power companies nor state regulators test private drinking water wells," according to the EIP report.
The Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet refused to say if it has ever tested groundwater outside of KU's property to determine if it's contaminated with lithium or other substances found at Ghent Generating Station.
The EPA said one of the benefits of testing for lithium and other unregulated substances is that samples may show the levels are low and are not a concern.
That, according to the EPA, should give communities more confidence that their water is safe to drink.
How is KU dealing with the coal ash?
Environmental groups insist coal ash needs to be removed from power plants and contained in lined landfills that will be less likely to leech contaminants into ground water.
KU considered transporting coal ash to an off-site location, but the utility said that was more expensive than building the landfill and keeping the waste on-site, according to company records filed with the Kentucky Public Service Commission.
KPSC records show KU expected to spend an estimated $341 million just on the first phase of construction for the coal ash landfill.
The landfill can hold up to 51 million cubic yards of material, according to the KPSC records.
KU's 2020 groundwater monitoring report claims, "No adjoining properties are expected to be impacted" by contaminated groundwater on the KU site.
But that report also acknowledged that the Ohio River "represents the potential exposure point for impacted groundwater" for ATB-1, a multi-site coal ash containment area next to U.S. Route 42, which runs just south of the river.
"ATB-1 Multi-Unit appears to discharge directly to the Ohio River at a rate that is likely not discernable (sic) upon contact with the comparably large volume of water flowing within the river," according to KU's 2020 groundwater monitoring report.
A second KU coal ash containment site at Ghent, ATB-2, is uphill from ATB-1.
Groundwater from ATB-2 potentially extends north within the valley on KU property, according to the groundwater monitoring report.
KU's report indicates groundwater below the landfill may extend southeast into the valley.
The company said it has closed two coal ash impoundments and is in the process of closing three others.
"Our operations are protecting the environment and our communities," Whelan wrote.
The Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet inspects the Ghent coal ash impoundments and other state sites required to comply with federal regulations, but KEEC spokesman John Mura declined to say whether KU was currently complying with federal coal ash rules.
"As to whether KU is meeting CCR requirements for the Ghent site, the Ghent facility is in the process of meeting regulations that cover coal ash containment ponds and its closure plan meets requirements," Mura wrote in an emailed response to the I-Team's questions.
But Russ insists KU's coal ash closure plan allows some of the waste to remain in groundwater and that it doesn't do enough to protect the environment and potential harm to wildlife and humans.
Buying out neighbors
In the last dozen years, KU spent about $10 million buying approximately 900 acres of privately-owned land surrounding the Ghent Generating Station, according to real estate records reviewed by the I-Team.
The utility refused to comment on the land purchases or why it bought the homes of some neighbors, but not others living next to them.
Most of the residents living within 3 miles of the Ghent Generating Station are low-income, according to the U.S. Census.
That includes Jessica Rowles, her husband and their child.
"I like it out here. I really do. I mean, we've called it home for quite a few years, but the dangers of that with whatever might be there, I worry about it," Rowles said.
Rowles walked to the edge of her property and pointed at several lots purchased by KU.
"They wanted the space," Rowles said. "They were expanding is what they told us."
She said KU offered $18,000 to buy their land, barely enough to cover what she claimed to owe on the property, according to Rowles.
"We wouldn't be breaking even if we were to sell to them at that offer," Rowles said. "We wouldn't be able to get anywhere else to live, so that just wasn't an option."
KU's Whelan declined to confirm whether the utility made an offer to buy the property.
So for now, Rowles said, she feels stuck on a hill overlooking hundreds of acres of coal ash with no realistic opportunity to leave and find an affordable home near her family in Ghent.
Until then, Rowles said, she'll focus on trying to keep her family healthy and happy.
And keep drinking bottled water.