Coal-ash pond leaks arsenic, other pollutants into Herrington Lake, environmental groups say

bestep@herald-leader.comMay 15, 2014 

The Kennedy Bridge as it crosses Herrington Lake at the Garrard/Mercer County line, in Garrard Co., Ky., Friday, January 31, 2014. Replacing this bridge is one of several projects included for the counties around Lexington in the stateÕs six-year road plan. Photo by Charles Bertram | Staff

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A large coal-ash pond in Mercer County is illegally leaking arsenic and other pollutants into groundwater and Herrington Lake, environmental groups charged Thursday.

The environmental group included the 126-acre storage pond in a report released to highlight concerns about coal ash at sites across the nation.

State regulators have known about contamination leaking from the pond at the Kentucky Utilities E.W. Brown power plant near the lake but have not acted to correct the problem, according to Nachy Kanfer, a Sierra Club representative.

"It's an outrage and it has to stop," Kanfer said in a conference call with reporters.

Water tests below the pond found arsenic — a cancer-causing metal — at a level 14 times higher than the amount that Kentucky says is safe in drinking water, as well as elevated levels of mercury in Herrington Lake and of boron in two springs, according to the report from the Sierra Club and Earthjustice.

"Protecting the health of the local community is critical, and the state must manage these contaminants," said Deborah Payne, health coordinator for the Kentucky Environmental Foundation.

However, Kentucky Utilities does not believe there are illegal discharges from the ash pond, nor does it believe anything coming out of the pond is having an adverse impact on the lake or groundwater supplies, said Chris Whelan, a spokeswoman for the company.

"We're committed to strict compliance with applicable environmental laws and regulations, and minimizing the impact of our operations on the surrounding community," Whelan said.

Coal ash is the residue left from burning coal to produce electricity. It contains contaminants such as arsenic, lead and mercury that can endanger the health of humans and wildlife.

Utilities typically store it in ponds or landfills, many of which have no lining, allowing contaminated water to leak out.

The pit at E.W. Brown, which was built in the late 1950s, does not have a lining.

KU no longer adds coal ash to the pond, but it continues to leak, the environmental groups said.

Dick Brown, a spokesman for the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet, said the Brown coal-ash pond is properly permitted and regulated.

The state is aware of elevated pollution in some springs on the site. Under a state directive, KU is assessing and correcting the situation, Brown said.

Whelan said the company plans to build a new catch basin and pump system at the pond and connect it to its existing water-treatment system.

There has been growing concern about coal ash in recent years because of high-profile spills.

In 2008 in Tennessee, for instance, the failure of a coal-ash dam dumped more than a billion gallons of waste into a river, and earlier this year, millions of gallons of contaminated water leaked from an unlined coal-ash pit in North Carolina.

Federal regulators have documented more than 200 cases of water contamination in the United States from coal-ash facilities, according to the report released Thursday.

Kentucky has 48 coal-ash ponds, the environmental groups said.

Environmental groups are pushing for regulation of coal-ash storage facilities, including requirements that they be lined and that companies monitor for water leaching out. The report released Thursday is part of that push.

There are no federal rules on storage and disposal of such waste, but the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is under a mandate to come up with rules this year, according to the report.

Kentucky produces a lot of coal ash — about 9 million tons a year — because the state gets more than 90 percent of its electricity from coal-fired power plants.

The state does not require utilities to monitor for leaks from all coal-ash facilities, and does not require liners for ash ponds, according to the environmental groups.

The state also does not require dam owners to come up with emergency plans on what to do if a dam fails.

That's another concern at the E.W. Brown coal-ash pond because the dam has been rated as a high hazard structure, the environmental groups said, meaning a failure could cause deaths or serious damage to houses, businesses and infrastructure.

Brown, the state spokesman, said the state requires groundwater monitoring for special waste landfills, but not for ash ponds.

However, the E.W. Brown pond was placed under assessment because of evidence of elevated levels of pollutants, Brown said.

Some newer ash ponds have liners, but the state does not require them, Brown said.

KU has applied for a permit to build a lined, 105-acre ash landfill on top of the pond.

The Sierra Club found information on contamination leaking from the old pond while examining records to use in challenging the permit for the landfill, according to a news release.

Bill Estep: (606) 678-4655. Twitter: @billestep1

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