Why did Adams County cleanup crew pump coal ash into Ohio River?

'Somebody dropped the ball'
Posted at 8:40 AM, Jul 22, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-22 21:25:05-04

MANCHESTER, Ohio — After 34 years with the Adams County Regional Water District, General Manager Rick Adamson has earned the right to brag about its only product.

“It just goes down smooth,” Adamson said between gulps. “I think it’s the best-tasting water in the state of Ohio.”

Adamson is keen to protect the district where he started as a laborer and rose to the top job in 2005. That’s why he was concerned on June 8 when the WCPO 9 I-Team told him the Killen Generating Station had started draining its ash ponds in 2020 as part of a plan to close and permanently cap the contaminated waste.

“We need to probably get in touch with Ohio EPA and see if they actually do have a plan to treat that water before it goes into any waterway,” Adamson said. “We don’t know for a fact that it’s a threat, but it’s something we have to keep an eye on because of the ash ponds and things that have happened there over the years.”

Rick Adamson, general manager, Adams County Regional Water District.

In the six weeks that followed that conversation, the plant’s owner, a corporate affiliate of Commercial Liability Partners, assured the I-Team its “site decommissioning activities” at Killen are “being completed in accordance with state and federal regulations.” The Ohio EPA added: “The facility has a wastewater (permit) that covers discharges from the ponds. The wastewater must meet pollutant limits in the permit before being discharged.”

But neither of those things prevented the company from pumping contaminated sediment into the Ohio River in July and August of last year, EPA records show. Former EPA Division Chief George Elmaraghy said CLP could have been fined for a Clean Water Act violation. In an email to colleagues, EPA Environmental Manager Marco Deshaies questioned whether CLP was “taking short cuts” at Killen. Neither the agency nor the company disclosed the pollution to Adamson before the I-Team discovered it this week.

“I’d like to see them do their job,” Adamson said of Ohio EPA. “That’s what part of their job is, to regulate this kind of stuff to make sure everything’s the way it’s supposed to be.”

View from Manchester

The I-Team has committed to a year of reporting about the retirement of coal-burning power plants in our region, in a series we call “Closed and Undisclosed.” Since 2013, utilities have shuttered or announced the closure of seven of the 10 plants that kept the lights on for decades in Greater Cincinnati. It’s part of a national trend that includes a69% decline since 2008 of coal-fired electricity generation, driven by environmental rules and the emergence of cheaper energy sources.

As coal-fired plants retire, new questions emerge about the billions of pounds of coal ash waste that remain. How will the sites be cleaned up? Who is monitoring air quality and drinking water? Will developers move in with new jobs or will the legacy of these coal towns be tainted land and unemployment?

Such questions linger like the scent of baloney on the griddle at places like the Eight Ball restaurant in Manchester. It serves up baked spaghetti and fried baloney sandwiches to regular customers who live about halfway between Adams County’s riverfront power plants: Killen and J.M. Stuart Station.

Dayton Power & Light’s corporate affiliate, AES Ohio, sold both plants in 2019 to corporate affiliates of Commercial Liability Partners, a St. Louis firm that redevelops industrial sites.

The I-Team has been working since April to understand CLP’s plans for remediating the plants through public record requests and questions we submitted to CLP and Ohio EPA. We also reviewed groundwater contamination data, which plant owners are required to publish under federal rules for the Disposal of Coal Ash Residuals, finalized by the U.S. EPA in 2018.

We used that data to create maps showing the location of monitoring wells at each plant and what kinds of toxins were found in those wells in the last year. For example, Killen’s wells showed higher concentrations than drinking-water standards allow for boron, lithium and molybdenum. Stuart wells had similarly unsafe readings for arsenic, boron, chloride, cobalt, lithium and molybdenum.

CLP is pursuing closure plans for the ash ponds at both plants that involve relocating coal ash and other waste materials to locations on each site to locations that will be capped with semi-permeable liners to prevent water from flowing through the waste. That’s intended to prevent contaminants from leaching into Adams County’s underground water supplies.

Ohio EPA said Killen has yet to submit its closure plan for the agency’s approval. But at the Stuart plant, it gave CLP permission in December to relocate coal ash and other waste materials to a landfill on the 1,700-acre site. In the Dec. 24 order, the agency required an “updated plan for a ground water monitoring program” that can “characterize any contamination that has been released from the Stuart ponds.”

Tim Dever photographed the demolition of the Killen Generating Station over several months.

On a bench outside the Eight Ball restaurant June 8, Manchester resident Tim Dever questioned whether CLP is up to the task.

“If the EPA doesn’t force them to, I’ve got my doubts,” said Dever, an amateur photographer who captured the Killen plant’s demolition in a series of shots from August to December of last year.

Dever thought demolition crews were “going too fast with it, getting it done as quick as they can.”

Dever shared one of his pictures with the I-Team, taken five days before the building collapsed, killing Jamie Fitzgerald and Doug Gray.

“It didn’t look like much was supporting the boiler that was still there when it collapsed,” he said.

Killen Generating Station on December 4, 2020

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration proposed fines totaling $194,000 against two of CLP’s demolition contractors, alleging they failed to restrict employees from a hazardous area after being told about “twisted/bowed columns and unusual settling noises” within the building. Detroit-based Adamo Demolition Co., the lead contractor for the Killen and Stuart demolition projects, is contesting the OSHA fines.

Now that CLP has turned its attention to cleaning up ash ponds, Dever said he would like the EPA to “have someone on site practically all the time.” And he’d like CLP owner Ron Froh to handle the cleanup more carefully than the demolition.

“He don’t have to worry about the end result of the power plants,” Dever said. “We do. We’re here. I’ve been here all my life and plan to stay for the rest of it.”

Such concerns were echoed by several Manchester residents over two days in early June, when the I-Team spoke to more than a half dozen plant neighbors who did not want to be quoted.

Some of those neighbors were former plant employees who were more concerned about the 370 jobs lost to the plant closures than the risk of pollution from them. Manchester lost 13% of its population after the closure was announced. But it regained about 60 residents in 2019 to boost its total head count to 1,998, according to the demographics provider, Data Commons.

Manchester Fire Chief Rick Bowman didn’t want to talk about pollution or economic concerns when the I-Team interrupted his lunch at the Eight Ball. But he did reveal that he’s pressing Adamo to share more details about Stuart’s demolition, which will require the dismantling of four boilers and five smokestacks this summer.

Manchester Fire Chief Rick Bowman

“At Killen, we didn’t really know anything about what was going on there until about a week before they were going to drop the tower,” Bowman said. “If we’d have been a little bit more advised, we could have been more prepared.”

Asked whether he thinks the Stuart demolition will go more smoothly, Bowman paused five seconds before answering.

"It’s hard to say,” he replied. “That’s a dangerous job, taking something down like that.”

Sizing up the closure plans

Closing ash ponds can also be dangerous, said Abel Russ, senior attorney for the Environmental Integrity Project, a Washington, D.C. -based nonprofit that pushes for tougher coal ash regulation.

“The ash at Killen is sitting in groundwater,” Russ said. “If you have water coming up from underneath or coming in from the sides, which is what you have at Killen, the cap doesn’t really accomplish much because there’s always water coming through. And as soon as there’s contact between the water and the ash, it’s like a tea bag. It’s just going to suck those toxic metals right out and carry them away.”

The Stuart plant is surrounded on three sides by water – the Ohio River to the south and Little Three Mile Creek to the north and west. That makes the site vulnerable to water infiltration, even after the coal ash is capped.

“If there’s flooding, that infiltration risk increases,” Russ said. “One way or another, flood water might get underneath that cap. It might lift up a piece of the cap. It might wash part of the cap away. It might just come up through the ground water as the flood water pushes in as a sort of hydrologic dynamic that you don’t really even see on the surface. So, there are a lot of ways that elevated river levels can affect the risk of contamination.”

In the last month, Public Information Officer Dina Pierce responded in writing to several questions the I-Team submitted to Ohio EPA about the Killen and Stuart plants.

At Killen, the agency said it has not received a closure plan for the ash ponds, but it doesn’t view those ponds as a risk to Adams County drinking water.

“There are 13 ground water monitoring wells on the site which have detected contamination at shallow and medium depths, but not at deep depths,” Pierce wrote. “Ground water flow at Killen is toward the Ohio River (east to west), not toward the Adams County Regional Water System wellfield, which is 1.5 to 2 miles away to the northwest.”

At Stuart, EPA said “ground water monitoring has been required since the 1980s for the landfills and a pond.” Its approach to ash pond closure is “more protective of ground water quality and human health than using the standards in the federal CCR rules.”

That’s a bold statement because Ohio EPA is often criticized by environmental activists for being more lenient than federal rules on CCR, or coal combustion residuals.

“Under the requirements of OAC 3745-27-10, the facility is required to address the release and prevent it from exceeding a ground water protection standard as soon as the release is detected and not wait until the release exceeds MCLs for drinking water,” Pierce wrote.

An MCL, or maximum contaminant level, is defined by the U.S. EPA as the "maximum level of a contaminant in drinking water at which no known or anticipated adverse effect on the health of persons would occur."

Commercial Liability Partners declined to be interviewed for this story, but it released a fact sheet on its cleanup plans at Killen that includes the following statement:

“The Killen Ash Pond will be closed by consolidating the ash and installing a low permeability cap that will effectively eliminate percolation of water through the ash and eliminate any potential leaching of constituents into groundwater. Over time, coal ash-related constituents in groundwater will naturally attenuate after the Killen Ash Pond is closed and a low permeability cap is installed. There is no identified human or ecological risk associated with groundwater exposure.”

‘Somebody dropped the ball’

But none of that addresses the question Rick Adamson raised in his Adams County well field June 8: Did EPA have a plan to treat the water drained from Killen’s ash ponds in 2020?

And at this point, the plot thickens.

“The water, or effluent, is treated and discharged out the permitted NPDES final outfall to the Ohio River,” the agency told the I-Team on July 16. “Killen’s NPDES permit with limits remains in effect and is in place to protect human health and the environment.”

NPDES stands for National Pollution Discharge Elimination System. It’s a permit program that limits the discharge of contaminants into “waters of the State,” including the Ohio River.

Killen’s permit allows it to drain water from ash ponds, subject to limits on PH levels, mercury, oil and grease and total suspended solids. Ohio’s most recent inspection report, dated June 1, 2021, notes four violations since 2019 for exceeding its limits on total suspended solids.

“The most recent occurred in July and August 2020,” said the report. “The facility realized that the pump was sitting to(sic) low in the pond and was pulling sediment from the bottom.”

The I-Team learned the back story of those violations from public records, received in the last week.

“As you know, the ponds are being dewatered for permanent closure,” CLP Vice President Jesse Froh wrote to the agency Sept. 30. “The bottom ash pond is now very low, and we believe the heavy rains have disturbed some of the exposed ash. We are evaluating moving the discharge from the bottom ash pond into the large, fly ash pond so any solids will have a chance to settle prior to discharge.”

On Oct. 13, the agency received an anonymous tip: “They are emptying ashes into the Ohio River.”

Marco Deshaies, an environmental manager in EPA’s surface water division, asked CLP to stop draining ash ponds “until they can get a plan in place to stop the violations,” according to an email he wrote to his bosses 39 minutes after he learned of the anonymous tip.

“I also feel we need to get someone out there to take a look/oversee this project,” Deshaies wrote. “They seem to be taking short cuts or are less experienced. We have not had these problems at other ash pond dewatering sites.”

George Elmaraghy, commissioner, Ohio River Valley Sanitation Commission

Pumping sediment from the bottom of an ash pond is a big mistake for which CLP could have been fined, said George Elmaraghy, former chief the Ohio EPA’s surface water division.

“The whole idea of using lagoons for treatment is to let all the suspended solids settle to the bottom and the suspended solids contain lots of contamination,” Elmaraghy said. “They should know that the bottom of the lagoons is sludge, and you cannot discharge sludge to the river without treatment.”

Elmaraghy is an outspoken critic of the coal industry. In fact, he claims industry pressure led to his forced resignation from Ohio EPA in 2013. But Elmaraghy’s 2012 memo on coal ash regulation remains the agency’s primary policy document on the topic.

“Somebody dropped the ball, because they changed the operation without modifying the permit,” he said. “If they change the way they operate the lagoon without informing the agency and submitting a permit modification, that is a violation of the Clean Water Act.”

In a July 21 statement, Ohio EPA said it doesn’t know how much coal ash went into the river or what contaminants were in the ash. But the sediment “concentrations were low” and “would not have had a significant impact on the river’s water quality.” It also disputes Elmaraghy’s assertion that CLP should have asked to modify its permit before draining the ponds. “The dewatering of the ponds is the first step in their closure so there was no change in operation,” EPA said.

CLP also provided a July 21 statement: “This data was reported by our team to the Ohio EPA and we took corrective measures … The Ohio EPA accepted the corrective measures and no citations were issued.”

In the end, Elmaraghy isn’t sure how much environmental damage was done, because the Ohio River has enough water flow to widely disburse most contaminants.

“The system worked in a way,” he said. “They violated their NPDES permit and they get caught, you know what I mean?”

But that doesn’t provide much comfort to Adamson, who is beefing up his testing budget so he watch for Killen contaminants on a quarterly basis.

“It’ll be very expensive,” Adamson said. “But you can’t put a number on what it takes to make sure our citizens have safe drinking water.”

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