A coalition of environmental groups have filed a lawsuit against PacifiCorp, one of the western United States’ leading energy providers, alleging that the company has been improperly disposing of toxic coal ash waste for decades. The lawsuit alleges a slew of pollution violations related to the Clean Water Act, including accusing the company of using a research farm next to a power plant to dispose of waste-tainted water via irrigation.
The lawsuit comes months after environmental groups raised initial red flags about the Huntington Power Plant, about 110 miles south east of Salt Lake City, Utah. In October, HEAL Utah and the Sierra Club — the two plaintiffs in the current lawsuit — filed a Notice of Intent to Sue, hoping to spur the Huntington plant to clean up its pollution issues.
But the energy company has been steadfast in its claims that it is not doing anything wrong.
“The company does not agree that there is a problem,” Richard Webster, a senior attorney with the nonprofit law firm Public Justice, told ThinkProgress. “They have not acknowledged that they have done anything wrong; therefore, they are not prepared to fix anything. We don’t have any choice but to move forward to litigation because we don’t have any agreement that there even is a pollution problem.”
In the lawsuit, filed Monday in the United States District Court for the District of Utah, the plaintiffs allege that the Huntington Power Plant has been contaminating the local environment for decades due to improper disposal of its coal ash and other pollutants created when coal is burned for power. Since 1973, the plant has used onsite, unlined landfills to dispose of coal ash and other pollutants. According to Webster, the Huntington plant began intercepting water from two streams that drain the coal ash landfills in 2007. That water was then diverted to a holding pond used to irrigate the nearby research farm. By diverting the contaminated water from the landfill into a holding pond, Webster said that the power plant is able to side-step the need for permits and pollution treatment required by the Clean Water Act, since Huntington Creek — into which the streams used to flow — is listed as an impaired waterway.
But diverting the contaminated water to a holding pond, and then applying it to a research field, might not actually keep the water out of Huntington Creek. According to a 2003 report prepared by PacifiCorp, groundwater flows from the land located beneath the farm, raising concerns that contaminated water sprayed on the farm might eventually make its way to the creek. According to PacifiCorp’s own testing, samples from groundwater near the two unlined landfills as well as the research farm show elevated levels of contaminants like mercury and boron.
The lawsuit also alleges that PacifiCorp is disposing of pollutants via various point sources directly into Huntington Creek without permits required by the Clean Water Act.
In a press statement emailed to ThinkProgress, PacifiCorp described the lawsuit's allegations as "unfounded," arguing that the groups have used studies and data in a way that deliberately misleads the public.
"Rocky Mountain Power has a long record of excellent compliance with state and federal environmental laws," the statement said. "We are committed to maintain this record. The company has taken proactive measures at the Huntington power plant to ensure compliance with environmental regulations and has obtained the appropriate permits to undertake these actions."
In an email to ThinkProgress, David Eskelsen, a company spokesman for PacifiCorp, confirmed the existence of a farm irrigated with plant process water and storm water runoff collected on the plant property. Eskelsen said that the farm is used to grow alfalfa that is then turned into mulch used for suppressing dust on the plant's landfills. He said that the power plant has worked with both the state of Utah, by obtaining a groundwater permit for the farm, and researchers from Utah State Unviersity, who have "used the data from the farms to provide information concerning the use of industrial water in other parts of the country."
PacifiCorp will have 60 days to either respond to the lawsuit or move to dismiss it. If the lawsuit goes to trial, Webster estimates that it could take years to reach a settlement.
In the meantime, Webster said, the Huntington Power Plant offers an interesting glimpse into a debate that is set to take place at coal-fired power plants nationwide. In 2014, the EPA released its first-ever regulations on coal ash, mandating that plants dispose of coal ash in lined pits, and that all old, unlined pits be cleaned up if they are found to be polluting the area. Traditionally, power companies have disposed of coal ash by dumping it into ditches or pits, and filling those pits with water -- a type of disposal known as a wet surface impoundment. But Webster says that the Huntington plant is proof that even if coal ash isn't stored in wet impoundments, like ditches or lagoons, it can still pose a pollution threat.
"Coal ash can cause pollution if you dispose of it in a wet way or in a dry way," Webster said. "It has a lot of leachable metals that come out quite readily in contact with rain or liquid in the landfill."
Facing EPA regulations and environmental concerns, more and more coal companies appear to be moving toward closing coal ash ponds across the country. When that happens, Webster said it's important that coal companies plan to store their pollutants in a way that ensures surrounding environments won't be impacted.
"These lawsuits are looking forward to the next stage," he said. "When you get rid of all the impoundments, what do you do with the ash?"