Duke Energy retired the Gallagher Generating Station in New Albany on June 1st. Many in the surrounding community appreciated the jobs Duke provided, the electricity the power plant generated, and the other contributions to the community.

But there is one Duke legacy that is not so generous to the people of Southeast Indiana. This legacy is the toxic coal ash remaining from decades of power production at the Gallagher plant. Duke has received approval from the State of Indiana to close two of its leaking coal ash waste pits “in place” – leaving millions of tons of ash in unlined pits in the Ohio River floodplain forever.

Duke claims that construction of an engineered cover over the ash pit will keep surface water away from the buried ash. While that may be true, the cover will not prevent groundwater from continuing to inundate the ash below the surface leaving the groundwater contaminated with toxic metals like arsenic, lithium, and molybdenum. And whatever gets in the shallow groundwater at the site eventually ends up in the Ohio River, as the river and the aquifer are hydrologically connected. Duke admits that groundwater flowing laterally through the site toward the Ohio River comes into contact with buried ash.

The result of this ongoing contact between buried coal ash and groundwater is extensive contamination: Arsenic has been recorded at 15 times the drinking water standard, molybdenum at 47 times the groundwater standard, and boron at 259 times the background level. This substantial contamination is confirmed by the semi-annual groundwater monitoring reports compiled by Duke consultants beginning in late 2015. These reports also reveal that over 20 feet of buried ash is soaking in groundwater.

Duke claims that the federal coal ash disposal rules, adopted in 2015, and the state’s rules, allow the company to close its ash waste pits in place. But that is not so. Both the state and federal rules require closure to be protective of human health and the environment, which is not possible as long as the coal ash continue to sit in groundwater. In fact, a main goal of the federal coal ash rule was to prevent such an outcome because it is precisely how groundwater contamination occurs. Thus, the federal rule sought to end the use of unlined surface impoundments (lagoons, pits, or ponds) — like those at Gallagher — because at virtually every site throughout the U.S. with unlined coal ash waste pits, groundwater contamination has been documented.

The better alternative would be to excavate the ash and move it to a secure disposal facility—known as “clean closure.” Duke may claim that it is too expensive to excavate the ash, takes too much time, and is not markedly better for the environment than leaving the ash in place. Yet at Duke’s own power plants in North Carolina, it is doing just that – fully excavating its unlined coal ash waste pits, recycling the ash that can be recycled, and moving the remaining ash to lined landfills where the risk of contamination is much lower. And it is doing this in a timely fashion, at a cost that is manageable. In North Carolina, Duke is excavating over 125 million tons of coal ash, whereas most of the 65 million tons of ash in Duke’s Indiana lagoons is being left in place to continue contaminating groundwater in perpetuity.

Unfortunately, this disparity in Duke’s coal ash cleanup strategies between Indiana and North Carolina is enabled by inadequate oversight by the Indiana Department of Environmental Management and a lack of meaningful action by the Indiana General Assembly.

Hoosiers deserve better. Duke Energy should provide Indiana communities the same level of coal ash cleanup as that in North Carolina, and excavate its leaking, polluting coal ash waste pits rather than leaving them for future generations to clean up.

The people of Southeast Indiana should contact Governor Holcomb at govholcomb@gov.in.gov and request that he require IDEM to support a clean closure plan for all of the Gallagher coal ash waste pits. And, contact Stan Pinegar, Duke Energy Indiana president, at spinegar@duke-energy.com urging complete clean up of coal ash at Gallagher and at all of Duke’s Indiana power plants.

Maloney is the Senior Policy Director for the Hoosier Environmental Council. Flickner is the Director and Waterkeeper for the Lower Ohio River Waterkeeper.

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