NEW RICHMOND, Ohio — The U.S. EPA is asking for better environmental cleanup of the former Walter C. Beckjord coal power plant site near New Richmond.
This comes after WCPO investigated the cleanup and closure of coal plants across Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana in a series of stories last year, “Closed and Undisclosed.”
In a Jan. 11 letter to Beckjord’s owner, Missouri-based Commercial Liability Partners and its subsidiary, an EPA official wrote that they must bring the unlined pits where leftover coal ash is being stored along the Ohio River into compliance with federal laws.
This likely means the EPA will force CLP to move the coal ash from the current storage ponds to a sanitary lined landfill and conduct more groundwater testing for toxic materials.
This could have huge implications for more than 60 older coal power plant sites nationwide, including a few others 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 late 2015, leaving them largely exempt for years.
“It was a giant loophole,” said environmental attorney Dave Altman. “It left contamination in the ground and actually could make things even worse than they already were with the unlined ponds.”
A federal appeals court ruled in 2018 that the EPA could not leave these legacy coal plant sites unregulated. The EPA is in the preliminary stage of trying to create new rules, but in the meantime the cleanup of these older sites has been in limbo.
With its letter this week, the EPA formally took the position that minimum federal standards regulating coal ash do apply to these old sites. That’s because cleanup companies are unearthing old coal ash and moving it from one pit to another, as at Beckjord.
“It’s quite clear that the idea of leaving the contamination behind … that’s not going to be allowed. And that’s what the importance of this letter is,” Altman said.
Altman, represents more than 100 Clermont County residents are suing CLP
claiming that alleged open dumping of coal ash is threatening to cause an environmental catastrophe.
Altman represents the nonprofit citizen group, Neighbors Opposed to Pit Expansion, or NOPE, in their lawsuit, which was filed in Dec. 21 in U.S. District Court in Cincinnati.
Residents and local leaders are very concerned about the six million cubic yards of coal fly ash that are stored in man-made ponds, perched along the Ohio River, which is a source of drinking water for more than 5 million people. The ponds are in the river’s floodplain and directly upgradient from county public drinking water wells which serve 130,000 people.
“The drinking water supply is a great concern,” Altman told WCPO in an interview last week. “When there are unlined ponds, and they have nothing to contain what’s in them… the river will go up inside and scour out the contamination and carry it outward back into the river or push it into the groundwater inland.”
A by-product of burning coal, the EPA states on its website that fly ash contains contaminants such as mercury and arsenic.
Coal ash exposure causes 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 the lawsuit.
Before Altman sued, he filed a notice of intent to sue CLP and subsidiary New Richmond Development Corp., on May 26 unless they stopped the alleged federal violations.
That notice is what Altman believes may have gotten the EPA’s attention.
CLP contractors are relocating coal ash from the oldest pond on site, Pond A, to other unlined ponds further south, Pond C and Pond C Extension. CLP confirmed this to the EPA during an August conference call, according to the letter.
“The fact that the utility is no longer generating power is irrelevant; there is no exclusion in (federal law) for existing (coal) … impoundments located at inactive utilities,” wrote Edward Nam, director of the EPA’s Land, Chemicals and Redevelopment Division. “Therefore CLP and NRD will need to take action to bring these ponds into compliance with all applicable requirements.”
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.
“We remain in full compliance with all regulation at the site. Our policy is not to comment on pending litigation, and we will address the allegations of NOPE's attorneys in the context of the lawsuit,” according to a statement from CLP sent to WCPO last week.
In the past two years, 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.
Neighbors sued CLP for the first time in 2019, claiming it violated a 1986 agreement to inform the public about contaminated waste disposal. Both suits are now pending before U.S. District Court Judge Michael Barrett.
Barrett will have the final say over cleanup requirements at Beckjord.
The EPA also issued a 91-page decision this week rejecting the closure plan for the General James M. Gavin Plant in Cheshire, Ohio. Owners of the plant had asked the EPA if they could continue to add coal fly ash into existing unlined ponds until 2023.
“They’re going to have to do fully protected closure which means closure of the coal ash that has contact with the groundwater or the soil is not allowed, and that’s what the Gavin letter specifically pointed out,” Altman said.