Kentucky Utility Has Been Discharging Coal Ash Into Ohio River On A Daily Basis, Lawsuit Alleges

Mill Creek discharge, taken by Sierra Club members from a boat. CREDIT: Sierra Club
Mill Creek discharge, taken by Sierra Club members from a boat. CREDIT: Sierra Club

Two environmental groups are alleging that a Kentucky utility has been dumping coal ash into the Ohio River on an almost daily basis, based on time-lapse images that were taken over the course of a year.

The Sierra Club and Earthjustice filed a lawsuit Wednesday against Louisville Gas & Electric, claiming that the utility has violated the Clean Water Act and a state permit that allowed the utility’s Mill Creek Generating Station in Louisville an “occasional” discharge into the river. The lawsuit is based on time-lapse photos that were taken by a camera set up by Sierra Club members in front of the discharge site at the Mill Creek station. The photos documented a year’s worth of discharges, but the Sierra Club says Google Earth images prove the discharges may have started as early as 1993.

“As far as we can tell, it’s been going on since the beginning of Google Earth,” Thomas Pearce, Western Kentucky’s regional organizing representative for the Sierra Club, told ThinkProgress. “It’s millions of gallons a day — it’s constantly flowing, 24 hours a day in the Ohio River.”

Pearce said the constant discharge likely means a host of chemicals — some of them harmful — are entering the river each day, including mercury, selenium, arsenic and lead. Those chemicals contribute to the stress Kentucky’s waterways are already under due to pollution, he said.

“In the state of Kentucky — and in a lot of other states too — we can’t eat fish out of any of our rivers or streams, and it’s mainly because of the coal industry,” he said.

Google Earth image of Mill Creek Generating Station CREDIT: Sierra Club
Google Earth image of Mill Creek Generating Station CREDIT: Sierra Club

Apart from getting the utility to stop its consistent dumping into the Ohio River, Pearce said he hopes the lawsuit makes state and federal officials start enact stricter regulations on coal ash. In January, the EPA announced that it would finalize its first federal regulations for coal ash disposal by December 2014, a decision that was prompted by a settlement in a lawsuit against the agency by environmental, health and Native American groups. It’s unclear so far, though, how tough those new standards will be on coal ash. The agency could decide to regulate the substance as “solid waste,” which would mean more liners on coal ash pond and more frequent inspections of storage areas, but it could also decide that coal ash is a “hazardous waste,” which would mean coal ash ponds would be phased out entirely, and which would require the federal government — not the states — to monitor and enforce new safety standards. Pearce said he hoped the EPA ends up classifying coal ash as a hazardous waste.

In the state of Kentucky…we can’t eat fish out of any of our rivers or streams, and it’s mainly because of the coal industry

Coal ash contamination made headlines in February after 39,000 tons of coal ash and 27,000 gallons of contaminated water leaked into North Carolina’s Dan River from a Duke Energy power plant. This month, workers began vacuuming up some of the largest deposits of coal ash in the river, including a 2,500-ton chunk of pollution that’s settled against a dam in the river. It was a major spill that contaminated the Dan River with lead, arsenic, and mercury, but Pearce said he wishes more people knew about the daily pollution that occurs too often in some states.

“It’s funny how the media mainly only recognizes when a massive spill happens all at one time, but nobody really pays attention to the constant pollution that we’re dealing with, especially in Kentucky,” he said. “Our state is ground zero for this.”

Kentucky LG&E; said in a statement to WDRB that, while they cannot comment on the ongoing litigation, the company “takes its environmental responsibilities seriously.”

“Mill Creek’s permit allows it to return treated water to the river through either of two permitted outflow areas after the water has been treated through the ash pond settling process. Both of these outflow points are legally permitted for the release of treated water back into the river as confirmed by the Kentucky Division of Water,” the utility said. “The Kentucky Division of Water, the state regulator that oversees the utilities’ water discharge, publicly stated Mill Creek is operating within compliance of its water discharge permit. Water is important in the process of generating electricity and is used throughout the plant in steam generation, in the cooling towers and the transport of coal combustion residuals. The company regularly monitors this water and reports the results to the regulatory agency.”

Dick Brown, spokesman for the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet, told the Lexington Herald-Leader that the discharges don’t violate the utility’s state permit, which the lawsuit states allows “occasional” discharges into the river. Brown said that, in fact, the “permit and permit conditions were drafted under the assumption that the discharge would in fact be constant as opposed to occasional.”