Sierra Club highlights rampant water pollution from central Kentucky coal ash pond, which could become worse (UPDATE)

ew brown pond
ew brown lake

Today the Sierra Club and Earthjustice released a report on the most high risk coal ash dumps in America, highlighting one of the nation’s worst in central Kentucky less than 30 miles from Lexington at the E.W. Brown Generating Station in Harrodsburg, Ky. The nearly 60-year old coal-fired power plant — operated by Kentucky Utilities, which is owned by LG&E/KU — contains a massive 126-acre unlined coal ash pond containing 26 million tons of coal ash waste from the plant, which the report shows is breaking state and federal laws by leaking toxins into the groundwater and adjacent Herrington Lake, a major recreation and fishing destination.

The Sierra Club tested water near the plant and found arsenic levels at more than 14 times the amount deemed safe for Kentucky’s drinking water, and Herrington Lake has unhealthy levels of mercury and selenium, all byproducts of coal ash left over from the burning of coal. Two of the springs near the plant contained levels of boron that exceed the EPA’s health advisory for children.

ew brown map

There is currently no federal regulation of coal ash landfills or ponds, and very little regulation by Kentucky’s state agencies.

“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. “When metals leach out of coal ash, they can move through groundwater into drinking water supplies, endangering public health.”

But LGE/KU have a plan for this giant, leaking coal ash pond: building a giant coal ash landfill on top of it. That’s right, KU is currently petitioning the state to allow them to build a dry coal ash landfill of 105 acres on top of the old, unlined coal ash pond that is leaking toxins into the groundwater and nearby lake, which feeds into the heavily polluted Kentucky River. Such a scheme is unheard of by the Sierra Club, who fear that this could drive the coal ash toxins even deeper into the groundwater and make mitigating the environmental damage of the site — should anyone choose to actually do so — even more difficult.

This comes on the heels of news in March that the Sierra Club caught video footage of LG&E’s Mill Creek power plant having a constant discharge of coal ash wastewater from its coal ash pond into the Ohio River. The Kentucky Division of Water said that such dumping of wastewater into the river was not a violation of their permit or Kentucky law.

“Kentucky power plants generate more than 9 million tons of dangerous coal ash each year, and none of it is federally regulated. Household garbage is better regulated than this toxic mess,” said Earthjustice attorney Thom Cmar. “Kentucky’s waters are being poisoned, and Kentucky families are paying the price for lax federal and state oversight.”

But that’s because coal keeps the lights on, right…?

We’ll update this story once we get word from the Division of Water.

***** UPDATE *****

Here’s the comment on the Sierra Club report by Dick Brown, spokesman for Kentucky’s Energy & Environment Cabinet:

“The existing E.W. Brown coal ash pond is properly permitted and regulated by both the Kentucky Division of Water and the Kentucky Division of Waste Management. The Division of Water recently cited the EW Brown facility for a substandard discharge (elevated iron levels) which the facility has remediated. In addition, the agency is aware of the presence of small springs on the site with elevated levels of pollutants. As per agency directive, the facility is in the groundwater assessment and corrective action phase of addressing the situation. An application for a new ash landfill is currently under review and a public notice on this application will be announced in the near future.”

***** UPDATE #2 *****

Here’s the response to the Beshear administration from Sierra Club attorney Kristin Henry:

“It defies credulity that the state can say this pond is properly permitted when it has been leaking like a sieve into groundwater and surface water unchecked for years.”


  1. Enviro
    Posted May 15, 2014 at 8:19 pm | Permalink

    The Sierra Club and Earthjustice report is way over the top with their allegations. The report is an exaggerated public lobbying effort to try and get EPA to issue coal combustion residual rules their way and for Congress (read Senate) to not to pass rules that the Sierra Club and Earthjustice may not like.

  2. RBevins
    Posted May 15, 2014 at 8:52 pm | Permalink

    Enviro, got evidence that their claims are overblown?

    Coal ash is an extremely dirty waste product, and if their waste ponds are unlined, then we should expect to find heavy metals leaching into the groundwater and surrounding lakes. In fact, it would be a surprise if we didn’t find them. Kentucky boasts of high quality sport fishing, which is only so good if you can’t eat what you catch.

    If this information is correct, the coal plants need to clean up their act immediately. Not that they will, or that Kentucky will make them. I’d just like to have clean water to drink, and I think that most Kentuckians would appreciate that choice as well.