A house is seen near the Gavin Power Plant on September 11, 2019 in Cheshire, Ohio. (Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is cracking down on groundwater pollution from the James M. Gavin power plant in Cheshire, which some say could mean the beginning of the end for Ohio’s largest coal-fired facility.
The plant’s coal ash pond, a 58-acre reservoir that holds the noxious waste left behind from burnt coal, is unlined. This runs afoul of 2015 federal regulations that went largely unenforced until the agency advanced on a nationwide crackdown earlier this year.
Coal ash, the byproduct of burning coal for power, is a toxic brew of industrial waste comprised of arsenic, boron, cadmium, lithium, mercury, selenium and other carcinogens and neurotoxins. Power plants generally store it on site in piles or pools. Unlined ponds run a risk of the chemicals leaching downward and poisoning groundwater below.
The company’s monitoring has detected “constituents” of coal ash in the groundwater, but it denies that its pond is the source of the contamination.
In 2008, a dike containing a coal ash pond in Kingston, Tennessee failed, leading to a massive spill of 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash that that killed at least 30 cleanup workers and poisoned the nearby Emory River. While the sludgy spills grab the headlines, environmental advocates and the EPA say groundwater contamination is the real devil.
“The dam breaking gets the attention, but the slower disaster is groundwater seepage,” said Megan Wachspress, an environmental attorney with the Sierra Club.
In late January, the EPA released a proposed decision to deny a request from Gavin’s operators to extend the plant’s coal ash permit. If the agency finalizes its decision, the plant must cease dumping new waste into the pond within 135 days, unless PJM, the regional grid operator, determines closure would starve the system of needed power to meet demand.
The plant’s robust generation comes at an environmental cost. The facility emitted 13.7 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, 40,000 metric tons of methane, and 70,000 tons of nitrous oxide in 2020 alone, according to the EPA, all of which are greenhouse gasses that contribute to climate change.
The plant requested the EPA extend its coal ash permit until May 4, 2023, which the EPA denied. It determined Gavin’s operators failed to show they had no alternative to the unlined catch pond. Agency officials also cited technical “concerns with the groundwater monitoring” at the plant, finding the surveillance to be insufficient.
In its filings with the EPA, Gavin identified groundwater contamination but stated it was caused by an alternative source — not its coal ash pond. The EPA rebuffed this claim.
The Utility Solid Waste Activities Group — a trade organization focused on the industrial wastes created within the utility industry that unsuccessfully challenged the coal ash rule — requested a 45-day extension of the comment window, originally scheduled to close Wednesday. The EPA granted 30 days (ending March 25).
The Gavin plant is housed by a city that has become synonymous with the human effects of toxic waste — American Electric Power paid its 221 residents $20 million to dissolve the town and agree not to sue AEP. The company sold the plants to Lightstone Generation, a joint venture of two private equity firms, in 2017.
Lee Davis, CEO of Lightstone Generation, said in an email the Gavin plant is “currently in full compliance” with EPA regulations and is working with the agency to answer its technical questions about issues raised with the coal ash plan.
The EPA says there are about 500 unlined ash ponds nationwide. The Gavin plant is the only Ohio facility facing this regulatory action. However, the Clifty Creek Power Station in Madison, Indiana received similar notice from the EPA as well.
While the Clifty Creek plant isn’t in-state, Ohioans fund in part the plant’s generation. It’s operated by the Ohio Valley Electric Corp., which is owned by investor-owned utility companies from multiple states. State legislation from 2019, now at the center of a public corruption scandal, forced ratepayers statewide to cover the losses three Ohio utility companies incur via their ownership interest in OVEC through 2030.
OVEC also operates the Kyger Creek power plant, a 1.5-mile drive from Gavin. The two are so close that Gavin alleged to the EPA that Kyger is the source of some of the detected groundwater pollutants, though the agency found there was no evidence to support the claim.
Clifty Creek operators requested extensions to December 2022 and April 2023 before ceasing use of two of its ash ponds that cover more than 110 acres — extensions the EPA is seeking to deny.
AEP is the largest equity stakeholder in OVEC. Company spokesman Scott Blake said it’s working with the EPA to “help them better understand” the company’s plans for ensuring compliance with the coal ash rule.
He said the submitted plan protects residents and groundwater in the areas and complies with the federal rules.
President Barack Obama in 2015 enacted new “coal combustion residual” rules governing how coal ash must be contained, given its links to human, animal and environmental health risk.
Representatives of both Gavin and Clifty Creek declined to directly answer whether losing the federal permits will force the plants to retire.
“Once the EPA issues their decision, we will work to determine the best path forward,” Blake said.
In a statement, EPA Administrator Michael Regan said the coal ash impoundments and landfills must operate and close in a manner that protects public health and the environment.
“For too long, communities already disproportionately impacted by high levels of pollution have been burdened by improper coal ash disposal,” he said.
Mike Cope, president of the Ohio Coal Association, said it’s likely the plants will find a way to operate in the short run, but the EPA’s action, if finalized, could shut down the plants within a few years. He downplayed the ponds’ risk to groundwater, and said this is a crackdown against coal, not just the ponds.
“What they’re trying to do is just show down the coal industry, period,” he said. “It’s that raw and direct.”
He also questioned whether PJM, essentially a marketplace for power over some 13 states including Ohio, will have enough electricity if the EPA moves forward revoking the permits.
PJM did not respond to an inquiry. Wachspress, from the Sierra Club, said the grid operates with so much excess capacity beyond demand that any grid shortfall is unlikely.
The plants losing out on the permits, she said, “should be a death sentence” — staying in operation will cost the owners huge sums to get into compliance, the returns will be slim (if any), and the air and groundwater damage simply aren’t worth it.
“Pouring more money into the situation seems foolhardy,” she said.
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