NEW RICHMOND, Ohio — More than 100 Pierce Township residents have put the owner of the former Walter C. Beckjord coal plant on notice: Stop the alleged open dumping of coal ash or face a federal lawsuit.
“This place is a catastrophe, environmental catastrophe, waiting to happen,” said attorney Dave Altman, who represents the nonprofit citizen group, Neighbors Opposed to Pit Expansion, or NOPE, in their potential lawsuit.
He sent notice of an intent to sue the owner of the former Beckjord site, Missouri-based Commercial Liability Partners and subsidiary New Richmond Development Corp., on May 26. It gives the company 60 days to reach an agreement that will stop the alleged federal violations.
“NOPE believes that a negotiated settlement of these violations, embodied in a court-approved consent decree, would be preferable to protracted litigation. However, if NOPE is unable to reach an enforceable decree, NOPE will file suit in the US District Court for the Southern District of Ohio,” the letter states.
The threat of a lawsuit may resolve numerous complaints about cleanup at the former power plant. In the past year, the I-Team has reported on blowing clouds of fly ash, ground and drinking water concerns and a smokestack that fell into the Ohio River during demolition and still has not been cleaned up four months later.
Neighbors sued CLP for the first time in 2019, claiming it violated a 1986 agreement to inform the public about contaminated waste disposal. That suit is still pending in federal court.
Residents and local leaders are very concerned about the estimated 10 billion pounds of leftover coal fly ash that are stored in unlined man-made ponds perched along the Ohio River, which is a source of drinking water for more than 5 million people.
A by-product of burning coal, the U.S. EPA states on its website that fly ash contains contaminants such as mercury and arsenic.
“The threats to humans associated with exposure to coal ash include elevated probabilities of cancer in the skin, liver, bladder and lungs as well as non-cancer risks such as neurological and psychiatric effects, cardiovascular effects, damage to blood vessels and anemia,” Altman wrote in his notice-to-sue letter.
Threats to plant and wildlife include fish kills, fish and amphibian deformities, elevated selenium levels in migratory birds and plant toxicity, Altman wrote.
“In fact, the threat of contamination from such unlined coal ash impoundments exceeds the U.S. EPA’s cancer risk criteria,” Altman wrote.
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.
Duke Energy closed Beckjord in 2014 and sold the 1400-acre site to CLP four years later. CLP is now demolishing the plant and cleaning up the site, with tentative plans to build a port terminal. A CLP spokesperson declined comment for this story.
“They’re taking contaminated fly ash from one unlined leaking area and moving it over to another unlined leaking area, and that is making things actually worse,” Altman said. “By not moving it to a lined properly controlled … sanitary landfill, they’re violating federal law.”
CLP’s contractors are relocating coal ash from the oldest pond on site, Pond A, to another unlined pond further south, Pond C, worrying many residents.
“Control them ash pits they got down there. They’ve been moving those ash pits,” said Judy Hurst, who grew up on the floodplain close to Beckjord. She now lives a few miles away in Clermontville.
“Some days down here, when I’ve been here, when you go down (Route) 52 you have to roll your windows up because the smoke, whatever that is, it’s all over,” Hurst said.
The I-Team reported on dust clouds rising from coal ash ponds on the southern edge of the Beckjord site last summer, as neighbors complained to the Ohio EPA.
Also last summer, an environmental consultant for Clermont County questioned whether the CLP’s groundwater monitoring plan is adequate.
Then in January, Clermont County’s emergency management director sent an email to the Ohio EPA complaining that Beckjord contractors had pushed demolition debris into the Ohio River.
Crews still have not cleaned up debris from a boiler demolition in October or the additional waste from a large Beckjord smokestack falling into the Ohio River in February, a spokesperson for U.S. Army Corps of Engineers confirmed to WCPO on June 14.
“What you’ve done at Channel 9 with your reporting is to make people aware, not just of that particular kind of incident … but also the pattern and practice of this new liability disposal industry,” Altman said. “You’re alerting people … about the consequences of if this stuff gets into the river.”
Altman wants CLP to remove the coal ash from unlined leaking ponds and move it to a lined sanitary landfill.
“During high river levels, the Ohio River drives the groundwater below the ponds into and through their unlined bottoms, so the groundwater has direct contact with the chemical waste in the ponds. These chemical contents are either pushed toward the set of Clermont County wells that provide drinking water to approximately 130,000 Clermont County water users or into the Ohio River. The Ohio River downstream of the ponds furnishes drinking water to over 5 million people,” Altman and attorney Justin Newman wrote in their intent-to-sue letter.
This case could impact the cleanup of other older coal power plant sites nationwide, and a few locally such as Tanner’s Creek Generating Station in Lawrenceburg, Ind., and the Muskingum River plant in Southeast Ohio.
Utility companies closed these older plants, which are known as legacy sites, before the U.S. EPA created rules to regulate coal ash in 2015, leaving them largely exempt for years.
A federal appeals court ruled in 2018 that the EPA could not leave these legacy coal plant sites unregulated. So the EPA is in the preliminary stage of trying to create new rules.
But Altman believes that minimum federal standards regulating coal ash do apply to these old sites, because cleanup companies are unearthing old coal ash and moving it from one pit to another, as at Beckjord.
“Legacy impoundments that fail to meet minimum criteria constitute open dumps even if they are no longer receiving waste, because that waste previously deposited there is still ‘disposed of’ within the meaning of the statute,” according to the notice-to-sue letter.
Since Ohio law does not consider fly ash to be a solid waste, state regulation is limited, Altman said, but federal law is enforceable.
An attorney for Clermont County 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.”
Yet at least one elected leader expressed support for CLP after a tour of the Beckjord site with the Ohio EPA on June 4.
“Based on our tour, I feel assured that the former power station is being dismantled safely, on time, on budget, and in an ecologically safe way to protect the Ohio River and the drinking water intakes downstream,” Ohio Rep. Adam Bird, a Republican from New Richmond, wrote on his Facebook page.
Yet Hurst believes many of her health problems, such as asthma and Crohn’s disease, and her family’s breathing problems, cancer and heart issues stem from living near Beckjord for years.
“We’ve always believed there was a connection because of Beckjord. Always,” Hurst said.
Six of Hurst’s 13 siblings died before age 50, she said, most of similar causes. Other relatives, who did not live near Beckjord, had much longer lives.
“There’s been a lot of people in town that’s died young here,” Hurst said.