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Louisville Gas & Electric Finds Groundwater Pollution At 4 Power Plants

Ryan Van Velzer

On a hilltop overlooking the Trimble County Generating Station, Quang Do and his family ring a large, bronze pagoda bell embellished with images of Buddha. The sound vibrates in your chest, thrumming over the hills into the valley below.

Do’s father built this temple here about 20 years ago. Today, Do shares it with his wife, his 9-year-old son, Alexander and a single monk who lives at the temple full time.

Along the banks of the Ohio River, in the town of Wises Landing, another part of the community gathers inside a Baptist church built at the turn of the 20th Century. Before the sermon begins, they ask for the names of friends and family who might need their prayers.

During hymns, Tracy Poe and her children are among those in the pews singing.

From both of these houses of worship, you can see the steam rising from the massive cooling tower of the power plant in the distance. The plant commands the horizon, reminding those nearby what it takes to keep the lights on.

But neither Do nor Poe know a lot about the coal-burning power plant when I ask them.

They didn’t know about the giant ponds — 95 and 33 acres, respectively — that store the coal ash and gypsum leftover from burning the fuel for electricity.

They didn’t know that in November, Louisville Gas & Electric quietly published results from a second round of testing demonstrating groundwater pollution underneath the Trimble County Generating Station.

They didn’t know that the pollution has the potential to contaminate wetlands and the Ohio River immediately adjacent the power plant; to release carcinogens like arsenic, or elements like selenium, which deform and cause reproductive failure in aquatic life.

The groundwater pollution isn’t just happening at the Trimble County Generating Station. It’s happening at every LG&E and Kentucky Utilities coal-burning power plant covered under the federal rules. That includes the Mill Creek power plant in Louisville, the Ghent power plant in Carroll County and the E.W. Brown power plant in Mercer County.

In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency says unlined coal ash ponds all across the country pose a substantial risk to human health and the environment.

But the ash ponds in Trimble County are showing more contaminants leaching into the groundwater than any other LG&E or KU site.

So after the Baptist sermon, I catch up with Poe in the gravel parking lot.

I tell her about the coal ash ponds. I show her printouts of the Louisville Gas & Electric notifications, buried in the company’s website, saying the utility has found levels of contaminants exceeding federal standards in the groundwater at the plant.

“It is concerning, you know I raise my kids here,” Poe said, “And I understand people’s frustration where they feel like the government over-regulates a lot of things, but when you are talking about something like our environment, we kind of need our environment to continue to be as a society. So yeah, it is concerning.”

Louisville Gas & Electric spokeswoman Natasha Collins said the groundwater pollution at their sites does not pose a threat to drinking water or recreation.

“What we posted in November as far as the notification is that we confirmed exceedances in molybdenum and in some instances in arsenic, lithium and selenium. It should be noted that data reflects conditions right at our impoundments,” Collins said.

The information LG&E released about these sites doesn’t actually say how much pollution is in the groundwater. Collins said the utility is now working to characterize the extent of the pollution and see if it could be coming from sources other than the coal ash ponds.

Except in Trimble County. There, Collins said LG&E will not do an alternative source demonstration and is already evaluating cleanup options.

Pollution In Trimble County

The Trimble County Generating Station sits on the banks of the Ohio River upstream from Louisville, outside Bedford, Kentucky. The station first went online in 1990, employs more than 100 people and is capable of producing 1,465 megawatts at peak operation, according to an LG&E facility description.

Credit Ryan Van Velzer
Trimble County Generating Station.

The pollution was found in the groundwater underneath the plant’s two coal ash ponds. That’s despite the fact the power plant is relatively new, and the ash ponds have clay liners designed to prevent contamination.

Retired fisheries Biologist Dennis Lemly said that’s because liners don’t work.

“The selenium and the other contaminants that are in that ash don’t just dissolve and vaporize and biodegrade and so forth. They are chemical elements, and they are going to be there from now on,” Lemly said. “It’s like acid leaking out of an old battery.”

Lemly has spent more than 30 years researching the impacts of coal ash on the environment. At the E.W. Brown power plant in Central Kentucky, more than six years’ worth of records indicate the power plant contaminated groundwater that flowed into Herrington Lake. There, Lemly found physical deformities in fish that could have been caused by the coal ash contamination.

He said selenium, in particular, is found in coal ash. It accumulates in the environment and can cause reproductive failure for aquatic life.

“[The contaminants] may kill the organism outright, and in the case of selenium,” he said. “It is passed from the parents to the offspring in their eggs.”

Credit Ryan Van Velzer
A screen capture from Google Maps showing an overhead view of Trimble County Generating Station. The bottom ash pond and gypsum ash ponds are located north of the station, near a wetland and the Ohio River

Lemly said the contamination at Trimble County Generating Station is almost certainly impacting the ecology of the wetlands and the Ohio River adjacent to the ash ponds, but testing needs to be done to confirm the pollution.

Collins with LG&E said the utility is unaware of any adverse impacts to the wetlands near the Trimble power plant, but is still evaluating the site. The utility plans to completely close all of its coal ash ponds by 2023.

“The 120-acre wetland at Trimble County Station is owned & managed by LG&E and the company has allowed the area to remain virtually untouched since the property was acquired more than 40 years ago,” Collins said.

What Happens Next

Back in the parking lot, after Poe reads the notifications posted by Louisville Gas & Electric, she asks what the plans are to clean up the pollution.

At the other LG&E power plants, experts will begin looking for other potential sources of contamination. If companies can prove it the pollution came from somewhere other than the coal ash sites, they won’t have to clean it up.

But at the Trimble County Generating Station, Collins said LG&E is already working with a contractor to identify potential cleanup plans. Federal rules say they have 90 days come up with a plan, which would put the deadline around the end of January.

LG&E also has to hold public meetings to discuss those cleanup plans within 30 days of selecting a remedy.

That’s important, not just to inform the public, but also because it will ultimately be up to the public to enforce the law. The federal rules are called “self-implementing,” which means they rely on informed citizens filing lawsuits to enforce the rules against utilities that are not in compliance.

Lisa Evans, an attorney with Earthjustice, said Kentucky is under no obligation to enforce federal requirements for a timely cleanup plan. And the EPA, although it has limited authority to enforce the rules, is unlikely to do so given the Trump Administration’s stance on coal, she said.

“…It’s a very heavy burden nationwide for affected communities to monitor the posting and content of cleanup plans,” Evans said.

Credit Ryan Van Velzer
From left to right, Tau Hanh, Julie Lee, Alexander Do and Quang Do, at the Chanh Phap Temple near Bedford Kentucky on Sunday, January 6, 2019.

In an emailed response to WFPL News’ questions about enforcement, Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet spokesman John Mura said regulators will require utilities to comply with state laws. Under those regulations, LG&E has to control the source of the pollution at Trimble County Generating Station and remove as much contaminated material as feasible.

The Energy and Environment Cabinet has known about elevated arsenic levels in the groundwater underneath Trimble County Generating Station since at least 2014, according to state records. Mura said the pollution is not a risk to human health.

That’s important to Trimble County resident Quang Do, who hopes that the pollution doesn’t cause any harm.

After Do gives a tour of the temple, we step inside for tea. The family sits cross-legged on the floor at the foot of an altar to Buddha. The monk, Tau Hanh, serves green tea in small ceramic cups.

Do said his father chose to build the temple on the hilltop for its tranquility. He said the nature surrounding them provides the beauty that makes for the best Buddhist temples.

After explaining what’s happening at the power plant, I ask what he thinks.

“I hope the water is clean for everybody up here,” Do said. “Because if the water is contaminated that would hurt everybody.”

Ryan Van Velzer has told stories of people surviving floods in Thailand, record-breaking heat in Arizona and Hurricane Irma in South Florida. He has worked for The Arizona Republic, The Associated Press and The South Florida Sun Sentinel in addition to working as a travel reporter in Central America and Southeast Asia. Born and raised in Phoenix, Arizona, Ryan is happy to finally live in a city that has four seasons.
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