Science Group and Appalachian Advocates Identify Opportunities in Closing Toxic Coal Ash Ponds

Repairing the Damage and Calling on EPA to Enforce Its Rules

Published Oct 13, 2021

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WASHINGTON (October 13, 2021)—Residents living near coal-fired power plants that produce and leave behind coal ash—especially in the Ohio River Valley where one in five disposal sites are located—have been waiting for the Biden administration to enforce the 2015 Coal Combustion Residuals (CCR) Rule, which requires utilities to excavate coal ash ponds that are in contact with groundwater. Today, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and the Ohio River Valley Institute (ORVI) released a study showing the economic, environmental, and public health benefits that would follow if the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) required utilities to adhere to the law when remediating closed power plant sites.

The CCR rule has been a flashpoint for industry for years. The Trump administration tried numerous times to weaken it and refused to enforce it. The Biden administration has yet to act on it. “Our analysis found that if closed sites were cleaned up completely, it would not only alleviate groundwater and surface water contamination, but also spur greater job creation and associated economic benefits, and help alleviate longtime environmental justice issues,” said Jeremy Richardson, senior energy analyst at UCS and lead report author. “Fully remediating these sites provides an employment off-ramp for workers displaced by plant closures.”

Appalachia’s long-standing economic struggles have been exacerbated by the global energy shift away from fossil fuels, said Amanda Woodrum, Senior Policy Analyst for Policy Matters Ohio and Co-executive Director of ReImagine Appalachia.

“In less than a decade, the Ohio Valley Region, including Kentucky, West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania, has lost 25,000 coal mining jobs and nearly 13,000 oil and gas jobs,” she said, “In the Ohio Valley alone, 34 coal-burning facilities closed between 2009 and 2017. This staggering industry decline has not only hurt families, but had ripple effects across communities, forcing schools to close and resulting in losses of essential services in the places hardest hit. Thoroughly remediating the closed power plant sites, while ensuring strong worker safety protections, would create jobs and ensure these sites are places where people can safely live and work.”

The report, “Repairing the Damage: Cleaning Up Hazardous Coal Ash Can Create Jobs and Improve the Environment," analyzed Big Rivers Electric Corporation’s proposed plan to remediate the Sebree Generating Station, in western Kentucky, and Commercial Liability Partners’ proposed plan to remediate the J.M. Stuart Station, in Ohio, as well as alternative “clean closure” plans for both sites. Both have coal ash ponds that will continue to contaminate groundwater if the EPA allows the site owners to simply cap the ponds and walk away, according to the report.

Exposure to coal ash pollutants can cause severe health issues, including cancer, heart disease, reproductive failure, stroke, and even brain damage.

The report calls on Big Rivers to completely excavate its two coal ash ponds and augment landfill safeguards to protect groundwater and the nearby river. During a 4-year construction phase, the report’s clean closure proposal would create an average of 282 jobs per year, compared to 144 under the utility’s plan. In addition, clean closure would generate nearly $324 million in economic activity in Kentucky over 34 years, compared to the $195 million generated by the utility’s proposed plan.

Meanwhile, the report noted Commercial Liability Partners’ cleanup plan should be expanded to include excavation of all the accessible coal ash, including portions underground, and construction of a levee to protect the landfill within the Ohio River floodplain. This would create an additional 62 jobs per year beyond Commercial Liability’s current plan, for a total of 314 during a nine-year construction phase. The clean closure plan would also lead to $809 million in additional economic output in the state over 39 years, compared to $667 million under the owner’s proposed plan.

“In these two counties, additional jobs and a greater influx of money would make a big difference, especially given that both have unemployment and poverty rates that surpass the national average,” said Ted Boettner, report co-author and ORVI senior researcher. “When these power plants close, they put a lot of people out of work—it is essential to spur job creation in these communities and proper remediation can begin to do just that.”

Coal plants are generally located in overburdened and underserved communities, according to the report. Nationally, 52 percent of communities near operating or retired coal-fired plants are low income, and almost 24 percent are disproportionately people of color. In the Ohio River Valley states of Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, 58 percent of communities near coal-fired power plants are low income, and 11 percent are disproportionately people of color.

“Changes in the energy industry can cause notable economic distress in communities historically dependent on coal-fired power plants, particularly in rural areas,” said Dr. Gilbert Michaud, an Assistant Professor of Environmental Policy at the School of Environmental Sustainability at Loyola University Chicago. “The closure of the Stuart and Killen coal-fired power plants in Adams County, Ohio represented 370 direct job losses, but also an additional 761 jobs lost through supply chain impacts, as well as millions of dollars of tax losses to the county. More coal mines and coal-fired power plants are expected to close in Appalachia in the coming years, and so economic development and job creation efforts for these communities have become increasingly important.”

For information about a 10 am ET press conference webinar on the report, click here. For information about a 1 pm ET in-depth, hour-long presentation on the report and related ongoing work, click here.