Some Wabash Valley residents have concerns about plans to contain more than 9 million tons of coal ash in ponds at a former power plant north of Terre Haute.
“These basins lie feet – not yards – feet from the Wabash River,” said Lorrie Heber, director of the White Violet Center for Eco-Justice, a ministry of the Sisters of Providence at St. Mary-of-the-Woods.
Heber spoke Monday after a two-hour open house Duke Energy hosted to hear questions about its application for a permit for coal ash disposal as required by new federal regulations.
Duke’s plan calls for five ash ponds to be consolidated into three at its power plant that closed last year after 63 years of operation. While the ponds would be capped in a manner similar to landfills, only one pond has a liner, said Heber, also a Wabash Valley Riverscape board member and chair of Riverscape’s coal ash committee.
“I appreciate the fact that Duke had a public meeting,” she said. But Heber found the format lacking in that there were no formal presentations. Instead, attendees went from table to table to speak with utility company representatives and contractors and Indiana Department of Environmental Management representatives.
But the format “gives people an opportunity to have their individual questions answered at length,” said Duke spokeswoman Angeline Protegere. “We’ll stay here as long as needed, as long as there are people with questions. It’s a constructive way to answer questions and take care of people’s individual issues.”
About 50 people attended during the course of the session, she said, calling it “a good turnout.”
An Environmental Management Department official at the open house addressed concerns about the ash ponds’ proximity to the river.
“We took a tour of the ponds [Monday] and they sit up high enough, even with the river where it is right now, that all of those closure structures would be above where the water would be,” said Jeff Sewell, deputy assistant commissioner for the department’s office of land quality.
If, upon reviewing Duke’s plans, department engineers find a risk of flooding, the cover would have to be armored to withstand the water, Sewell said.
The Wabash River at Terre Haute stood at just over 22 feet Monday. Sewell said it would have to rise another 8 to 10 feet to threaten the coal ash storage sites. Records show the river has topped 30 feet twice since 1900.
While Duke’s plan is built to withstand a 100-year flood, Heber said, “Our climate is changing. We’ve had 500- and 1,000-year floods occur with regularity in the United States and the world in the past 10 years.”
Heber, and others in attendance, also had questions about potential groundwater contamination. Plans call for groundwater monitoring for 30 years, and Duke will sample monitoring wells at least twice a year.
But Heber calls that a “short-range plan. There is no proof of concept in how long these ponds can be managed over a period of time. … They’re using landfill standards but very few landfills sit feet, not yards, from the Wabash River.”
Heber suggested moving the coal ash to another site away from a major waterway, but Sewell said closure in place is the most common option for large-scale disposal ponds.