NEW RICHMOND, Ohio — Clermont County residents were shocked in February when a smokestack from the retired Walter C. Beckjord power plant toppled into the Ohio River.
But emails obtained by the WCPO 9 I-Team show that wasn’t the first time demolition crews left bricks, mortar and pieces of metal in the water.
Now, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has ordered contractors to clean up the mess it made in a river that provides drinking water for 5 million people and serves as the recreational play area for thousands of boaters, tubing children and jet skiers during the summer.
In an April 15 compliance letter to MCM Management Corp., the federal agency ordered the company to submit a clean-up plan by the end of April and remove an estimated 75 cubic yards of demolition debris from the river within 30 days of the plan’s approval.
This comes three months after Clermont County and Pierce Township officials first complained to state and federal agencies about waste debris in the river at Beckjord.
“I do have huge concerns,” said Pierce Township fire Chief Craig Wright. “It’s not just Clermont County’s drinking water, it’s the city of Cincinnati’s and Hamilton County’s and Northern Kentucky’s. It’s much larger than just us.”
As the nation transitions away from coal, the colossal plants that burn it are being shuttered up and down the Ohio River. Ohio has more coal plant closures and retirement announcements than any other state in the nation, according to the Sierra Club.
This leaves more questions than answers in the communities left behind. Perhaps the biggest ones: How will the sites be cleaned up? And who is monitoring them?
After a year of asking those very questions about Beckjord, Clermont County and Pierce Township officials said they still don’t have many answers.
"If we acquire a house and burn it down for training for our firefighters, I have to get more permits than what are needed to demolish and implode a power plant,” Wright said.
Wright is worried about his drinking water. As the summer boating season approaches, he also fears curious boaters could be injured by falling debris that hangs over the river at Beckjord or strike debris hidden underneath the water.
"The big deal is, the same people who appear to be having these mishaps that are non-regulated are the same people that control a catastrophic amount of fly ash perched on the river,” said environmental attorney Dave Altman. “How much are you going to allow this company to get away with without the scrutiny that it deserves?"
Fly ash is a by-product of burning coal, which the U.S. EPA states on its website contains contaminants such as mercury and arsenic.
Altman represents more than 100 New Richmond residents in a federal lawsuit filed in December 2019 against site owner Commercial Liability Partners. It argues that the developer breached a 1986 agreement with then Beckjord owner Cincinnati Gas and Electric that allegedly entitles residents to more information about contaminated waste disposal.
An attorney for Clermont County, Scott Doran, wrote to the U.S. EPA last December, asking for more oversight at Beckjord, which he described as a “danger to human health and the environment” because the coal ash is stored in unlined leaking ponds covering over 200 acres.
Some say the delayed cleanup of demolition waste in the Ohio River highlights a bigger problem about lack of oversight at the now-dormant plant, which is known as a legacy site because federal rules overseeing coal combustion residuals that took effect in 2015 do not apply.
But Commercial Liability Partners said its contractors “followed best practices by a highly experienced demolition contractor and we worked collaboratively with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Ohio EPA and local emergency and transportation officials to ensure a successful demolition.”
‘Fully engaged with local officials’
Built in the 1950s as a coal-burning giant, the plant pumped electricity to hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses across Southwest Ohio for decades.
In 2014, Duke Energy closed the Beckjord power plant, where more than 5 million tons of coal ash are buried in unlined, man-made ponds along the Ohio River.
Duke sold the 1,443-acre site in 2018 to Commercial Liability Partners, which is demolishing the plant with plans to build an industrial park, green space and port terminal.
In a permit application to the Corps of Engineers, CLP’s demolition contractor, MCM Management, assured the agency that no debris would enter the Ohio River.
In an October 2019 application letter from MCM, vice president of demolition operations Aaron Fitch stated that a barge with a 15-foot-high backstop would be used to contain any falling debris, and that demolition would take place in the summer or fall, when the Ohio River is at a low stage.
Neither of those things happened.
The contractor later determined that using a barge “would not be feasible,” and it is “not a required permit condition” to demolish the smokestack during low river stage, a Corps spokesman told WCPO.
Commercial Liability Partners, which owns the former Beckjord site, did not respond to requests for an interview.
CLP did provide a statement that said, in part: “Our teams and our contractors have been fully engaged with local officials and regulators who have overseen major milestones and ongoing work at the site.”
But emails WCPO obtained through a public records request reveal tense, and sometimes confrontational, exchanges between local officials and Beckjord’s contractors. They began when contractors announced via a March 27, 2020, email that demolitions would begin in early May at Beckjord.
“I will not support or sign off on this in any way unless several things were to happen,” Wright replied hours later on March 27, to Rhonda Reed, project manager for Devon Industrial Group, which is working on the Beckjord project. “There would need to be clear and open communication between all parties and partners involved, and that obviously hasn’t occurred up to this point.”
Follow-up emails show that local officials tried to get Devon to delay the demolition at Beckjord due to fears about COVID, in light of Ohio stay-at-home orders that closed all non-essential business.
Officials even turned to Clermont County Prosecuting Attorney Ernie Ramos for help.
“The question remains, is there anything that the county can do to encourage/force CLP to hold off on any demolition work until the current emergency has ended,” Clermont County Emergency Management director Pam Haverkos wrote in an April 1 email to Ramos. “The Beckjord property has a class 1 dam that holds back coal ash. If breached, this could be an environmental disaster that we will not have the resources to respond to effectively.”
But Wright said he and other local officials quickly learned that they had virtually no authority over what happened at the Beckjord site.
“It’s still technically classified as a public utility … so it's exempt from building codes," Wright said. "It’s exempt from a good portion of the fire code. The things that give me my authority and jurisdiction, they’re mostly exempt from.”
What he ‘didn’t expect to find’
Emails from Clermont County building and permit officials confirm that demolitions at Beckjord are exempt from local jurisdiction, and emails from the state fire marshal’s office confirm that explosives permits were not needed because the explosives were stored in a Department of Transportation-permitted transport vehicle.
Beckjord contractors did provide Wright with safety and demolition plans, maps of road and water closures, and communication contacts.
But emails show that Wright argued with contractors about notifying the public, allowing local officials to attend the demolition, and using a Clermont County Sheriff’s Department drone to check for curiosity seekers.
The May 8, 2020, demolition of precipitators and turbine roof units at the plant went off smoothly, and for months afterward Wright said he had little contact with Beckjord contractors.
Contractors initially planned to use explosives to demolish another portion of the plant for October or November 2020, but emails obtained by WCPO reveal that it was canceled because they could not secure explosives.
Then in January a Pierce Township trustee alerted Wright that residents were complaining about large amounts of construction debris in the Ohio River at Beckjord.
Wright took his camera and zoom lens to the shores of Melbourne, Kentucky, directly across the Ohio River from Beckjord, where he took dozens of photos.
“I didn’t expect to find that kind of debris in the river itself,” Wright said. “They’re using equipment to push debris and stuff around the site so it was piled rather high on the side … but I honestly can’t say if it was pushed in there, or if it just slid down, or how it ended up there.”
But Wright added that “it did not appear” contractors at Beckjord were actively trying to prevent debris from going into the Ohio River.
Wright sent those photos to local officials, who in turn sent emails to the Ohio EPA, U.S. EPA, Corps of Engineers, U.S. Coast Guard and other agencies, asking for help.
“Attached are pictures of the debris being pushed into the Ohio River at the Beckjord plant,” Haverkos, the county’s emergency management director, wrote in a Jan. 19 email to the Ohio EPA.
What was the Ohio EPA’s response?
“Agency staff went to the site on Jan. 22, confirmed that debris from the demolition was in the river. Ohio EPA followed up by contacting the Corps of Engineers and the demolition contractor about the issue,” according to an Ohio EPA spokesperson.
But the debris was still not cleaned up.
“I reached out to anybody and everybody that I could think of that could provide some help to us,” Wright said.
What’s in the water?
More debris fell into the Ohio River on Feb. 26, when contractors used explosives to demolish the largest smokestack at Beckjord. The top portion of the stack fell into the river with a thunderous splash.
A Corps of Engineers spokesman said 75 cubic yards of debris fell into the river from that demolition, based on estimates provided by MCM. That’s 45,000 pounds, or 22.5 tons, or enough to fill 2.5 commercial construction dumpsters.
But Chris Wessels, owner of Interstate Stack and Chimney Services, believes much more debris from that smokestack is in the river than what MCM is reporting.
“I would say almost the whole chimney is in that Ohio River,” Wessels said. “And whatever contamination was in that chimney that went in that river has probably been washed down the river by now.”
Wessels has been repairing and demolishing industrial and utility chimneys across the nation for more than 40 years.
He said contractors invited him to the Beckjord site last spring to bid on the demolition of smaller steel stacks. Wessels did not end up performing work at Beckjord. But while on site he took photos of and asked questions about the largest concrete smokestack, in anticipation of possibly bidding on that job, he said.
“It never should have been taken down, ever, with explosives … because you can’t control where that chimney is going to fall,” Wessels said.
Wessels said a chimney of that size, standing at more than 400 feet tall, should have been taken down in a controlled piecemeal manner using scaffolding and a team of workers. But that would have been more expensive and taken several weeks.
Was the smokestack clean?
“I am still very curious if that chimney was ever inspected before it was demolished,” Wessels said. “Because, typically, on the inside of that chimney, in the fly ash and based on the fuels that were burned, there’s contaminants.”
Wessels asked if the largest smokestack had been cleaned, but he said contractors never gave him an answer.
Ohio regulations require that asbestos be removed from structures before demolition, and that did happen at Beckjord, according to an October 2019 application letter by MCM to the Corps.
But other materials, besides asbestos, are not regulated, according to an Ohio EPA spokesperson.
So it is unlikely that public records exist that reveal whether the Beckjord smokestack contained coal ash or other pollutants, or if it was cleaned before it imploded and fell into the river, because contractors do not need to provide that documentation to regulators.
“The Beckjord power plant has been decommissioned, coal ash removed and asbestos abated,” Fitch wrote in a permit application to the Corps signed in February 2020, which did not contain test results.
Based on documentation it received from the contractor, a Corps of Engineers spokesman said any debris in the Ohio River is simply "brick and mortar."
But Altman, the environmental attorney, isn’t so sure.
“You’ve got all the heavy metals just for starters – mercury and nickel and the whole list of heavy metals, depending on where the coal came from,” Altman said. “This would have had decades of such residues built up inside the stack.”
Federal law has banned companies from putting smokestacks into rivers since 1899, Altman said.
“This was a violation of potentially the Clean Water Act and the Rivers and Harbors Act,” Altman said. “But nobody seems to care about this, at least at the federal level, or perhaps at the state level … that is just not the way that the government is supposed to work.”
Wessels would like to see more oversight and regulation in how contractors bring down tall chimneys using explosives, especially since so many utility plants will be demolished in the coming years.
“If you think about the age of these chimneys being 60, 70, 80, 90 years old … and now that we’re changing the way that electricity is being generated,” Wessels said. “We’re seeing, I think, the beginning of what’s going to be a lot more of tall utility chimneys being brought down.”
Meanwhile Wright said, he will be honest when residents ask him about what’s going on at the Beckjord site. And that means saying he doesn’t know.
“I have a duty to look out for the community and the residents,” Wright said. “We just don’t have the authority or the jurisdiction to truly oversee what’s going on down there ... So far, we’ve not found any agency that truly does.”