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New report highlights threats of Harding Street toxic coal ash ponds

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Lax Regulations, Rampant Contamination Show Need for Strong New Safeguard by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Thursday, May 15, 2014
Jodi Perras, Sierra Club - jodi.perras@sierraclub.org, 317-296-8395
Shane Levy, Sierra Club - 201-679-9507, shane.levy@sierraclub.org

INDIANAPOLIS - Indianapolis Power & Light’s Harding Street coal-fired power plant was cited as one of the most dangerous coal ash sites in the country,  according to a report released today by the Sierra Club and Earthjustice. The report highlights the threat to drinking water wells near the plant and the White River, as well as the regulatory failures to protect Hoosiers from toxic coal ash threats. A copy of the Indiana state-based report can be found here.

“For as long as the Harding Street coal plant has been burning coal, it has been dumping toxic coal ash waste into dangerous coal ash ponds located adjacent to the White River,” said Jodi Perras, Indiana representative for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign. “The safety and drinking water of Indianapolis families is threatened by IPL’s irresponsible coal ash disposal, and we are calling on local officials to ensure that Indianapolis residents are protected from a Dan River-like disaster.”

According to a May 5 report from the Hoosier Environmental Council, recently uncovered records from the Marion County Public Health Department revealed groundwater contamination under the coal ash ponds during the 1980s. Research from J. Russell Boulding, a local geologist, found that concentrations of arsenic were twice the EPA standard for drinking water and mercury levels were 20 times the standard. Boron results were three times EPA’s child health advisory for drinking water. Boulding concluded in his research that toxic coal ash contamination could have spread to private drinking water wells in the downstream Sunshine Gardens neighborhood and potentially pose a threat to the city’s major drinking water wells nearby. The Marion County Public Health Department recently announced its plans to test private water wells in the Sunshine Gardens neighborhood and other areas near the plant for boron, which is a marker of coal ash contamination.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2010 identified two of the Harding Street coal ash ponds as “high hazard,” meaning that a “failure or mis-operation will probably cause loss of human life.” The remaining Harding Street ponds were rated in “poor” condition by the EPA. Located within the floodplain of the White River, the Harding Street coal ash ponds have the capacity to store up to 310 million tons of toxic coal ash. According to the U.S. EPA, a failure of the ponds could send toxic coal ash into the White River and Lick Creek, and based on research from the Hoosier Environmental Council, a large flood could wash coal ash pollutants into surrounding neighborhoods and the wellfield protection area, which is designed to protect groundwater that supplies drinking water throughout the city.

"Indiana power plants generate more than 9 million tons of dangerous coal ash each year, and none of it is federally regulated. Household garbage is better regulated than this toxic mess," said Earthjustice attorney Thom Cmar. "Indiana's waters are being poisoned, and Indiana families are paying the price for lax federal and state oversight."

Despite having more active coal ash ponds than any other state, Indiana has some of the weakest protections from the dangers of toxic coal ash. The State of Indiana does not require the safe disposal of toxic coal ash or safeguards like groundwater monitoring. In 2007 and 2008, ash ponds at IPL’s Eagle Valley coal-fired power plants spilled more than 30 million gallons of toxic coal ash waste into the White River upstream from Martinsville. Toxic coal ash waste has also contaminated the groundwater in 11 sites throughout the state, including the Porter County Town of Pines, where private drinking water wells were contaminated and Northern Indiana Public Service Co. and other responsible companies were required to provide municipal water to about 270 homes. Cleanup continues in the town under the federal Superfund program.  

Coal ash, the byproduct of coal combustion and other hazardous compounds, contains arsenic, lead, mercury, and selenium, as well as aluminum, barium, boron, and chlorine. These toxins can cause cancer, heart damage, lung disease, respiratory distress, kidney disease, reproductive problems, gastrointestinal illness, birth defects, and impaired bone growth in children.


There are no federal protections for communities or waterways from coal ash pollution. The EPA and other state regulatory agencies have confirmed that coal ash has contaminated waters at 200 sites in 37 states across the country.


BACKGROUND ON POWER INDY FORWARD: By Nov. 1, IPL must prepare a 20-year plan for how it will generate the city’s electricity and submit the plan to the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission. On Wednesday, the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission (IURC) approved Indianapolis Power & Light’s (IPL) request to raise electricity bills to fund the construction of the proposed Eagle Valley natural gas plant north of Martinsville. The proposal also includes IPL’s plans to convert two of the coal-burning units at the Harding Street plant to natural gas. The Power Indy Forward coalition, which includes more than 40 faith communities, neighborhood groups, university groups and other community organizations, has called on IPL to stop burning coal completely in Marion County by 2020.

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