As a writer for Earthjustice, I often tell stories about people from across the country who inspire me with their tales of going up against all odds and billion-dollar corporations to protect themselves, their families, and their communities from environmental harm.
Occasionally, the stories I tell hit closer to home.
Recently, I discovered there’s a toxic waste site near my childhood home leaching dangerous chemicals into the groundwater. When I googled “Wheatfield, Indiana,” the location of the site, I was shocked to see it was only about a 40-minute drive from my dad’s house in eastern-central Illinois. Despite growing up just a stone’s throw from the state line, I’d never thought much about Indiana beyond it being the place where my friends and I used to buy better fireworks.
But it turns out Indiana has another claim to fame that’s sure to create a different kind of spark. Currently, it has more coal ash sites than any other state. These football-field sized holes in the ground are filled with millions of gallons of dirty ash created by burning coal. The majority of the 86 ash ponds scattered around Indiana are unlined and located next to a water source. All but three of Indiana’s coal plants have coal ash sites located in the 100-year floodplain.
Coal is dirty, as anyone who has ever lived near a coal plant or snagged a few coal nuggets off an idling train will tell you. So it’s no surprise that its byproduct, coal ash, is also full of toxic chemicals. Arsenic, mercury, lead and chromium top the list — and exposure to all of them can cause serious health impacts.
Thanks to regulations enacted by the Obama administration in 2015, we now know that 15 out of 15 of the coal ash sites tested in Indiana are contaminating the nearby groundwater, including the one in Wheatfield. But the problem isn’t limited to Indiana. In Oklahoma, for example, data analysis by Earthjustice and the Environmental Integrity Project found that all of the coal ash dumps tested had groundwater contamination. With those kind of odds, our attorneys are likely to find more leaking coal ash sites as they dig through the monitoring data dump that occurred as a result of the new regulations.
Despite this confirmation of widespread coal ash contamination, pro-coal and utility industry groups pressured the EPA to roll back its first-ever federal safeguards on coal ash sites. In July, the agency did just that, proposing to water down the new coal ash regulations just one day after the groundwater data was released. If approved, the new regulations will hand coal ash oversight back to states like Indiana.
Earthjustice, alongside groups like Clean Water Action, the Sierra Club and the Environmental Integrity Project, is challenging this regulatory rollback, which is a clear giveaway to coal companies at the expense of public health. We’ve been working on this issue for more than a decade, and we’re not stopping now. At the same time, we’re working with our regional partners to alert residents near these leaking sites to the groundwater contamination issue. That’s how I ended up driving to Wheatfield, Indiana, where I met folks living near the coal ash dump.
It’s not all that surprising that Indiana has so many coal ash sites, says Earthjustice attorney Lisa Evans, an expert in hazardous waste law. The state once had some of the weakest regulations in the nation.
Despite being America’s second largest industrial waste stream, coal ash has long enjoyed looser regulations than those applied to your household garbage. That all changed in 2015, after years of legal advocacy by Earthjustice and others to push the EPA to regulate coal ash. One of the groups involved in this effort was the Hoosier Environmental Council (HEC), an environmental nonprofit in Indiana. Indra Frank of HEC says that the state’s dismal coal ash situation is a prime example of what happens when states are left to their own devices in regulating coal ash.
“The state had 100 percent flexibility until 2015, and it chose not to regulate how coal was disposed of,” says Frank. “That’s why we have coal ash in our floodplains and our groundwater.”
For years, HEC and others tried to get the state regulators to rein in coal ash. All to no avail. The electric utilities and coal companies have enormous power in Indiana, so much so that it didn’t matter whether a Republican or Democrat was in charge. That’s why HEC and others finally decided to push hard for a federal coal ash rule.
“We couldn’t make any headway here,” says Frank. She adds that Indiana regulators are likely to let coal ash contamination continue now that the federal rule is under attack.
As I drove east from my dad’s house toward Indiana along a narrow county road, I passed the typical Midwest panorama of corn and soybean fields. There were signs against wind farms, no big surprise given that Indiana is a red state where industries often succeed in pushing a fossil-fueled agenda. But I also passed signs against new prisons and industrial livestock operations, suggesting a progressive bent that I’m more used to seeing in my current home in northern California.
It wasn’t long before the Schahfer power plant’s silver-colored smokestacks loomed in the distance, discharging giant white clouds of pollution. As I made my way through Wheatfield, a town of about 850 people, the plant followed me around like the Eye of Sauron.
Barb Deardorff, whose family has lived in the area for five generations, says in some ways the plant has always been in the background of her life. In the 1960s, her grandfather and his family, including her father, were forced to relocate their home after Schahfer decided to build a plant there. As a child, she remembers watching the coal ash pile grow every day as her school bus drove by. Today, her house sits about a mile from the site.
“I remember one girl telling me that she thought the power plant was a cloud-making machine,” says Deardorff, who later went on to study environmental science and now works for the local teachers’ union. “Even then, I had a sense that there were terrible things coming out of that plant.”
Barb was shocked and angry when she learned the coal ash pond was contaminating nearby groundwater. But she even more frustrated that she had to find out about it in the local newspaper, rather than from the health department or Schahfer itself.
“No one told us,” she says.
Another Wheatfield resident, Don Hancock, also found out about the groundwater contamination through the local paper. A carpenter by trade who now works as a safety coordinator for a large construction company, Hancock says he became concerned about coal ash and the local water quality after several of his family members were diagnosed with chronic health conditions at a young age.
Though he doesn’t consider himself an Obama or Trump supporter, Hancock says that watching Trump roll back some of the environmental regulations on things like coal ash has made him realize that the president is beholden to the corporations and to the Republican party.
“The rules shouldn’t change just because the administration changes,” says Hancock.
Altogether, approximately 70 private wells lie within a mile of the Schahfer facility. Though Deardorff and Hancock plan to get their water tested, it’s unclear whether state regulators intend to notify other well owners of the possible contamination. (An email to the state health department was not returned by the time of publication.) Public utilities are required to test for heavy metals and other contaminants, but no such testing is required for private wells. Deardorff says that people will have to keep pushing the issue to ensure that all suspect wells are tested.
As I drove the 40 minutes west back to my dad’s house, I thought about how, when I first told him I was flying home to report on a story about coal in Indiana, he immediately assumed I would be going to Wheatfield. When he was a kid, my dad and his friends would often travel there to meet up with girls from the local high school. He remembers the plant being one of the single defining factors of the town.
But it doesn’t have to be. As Deardorff pointed out earlier that day, there are wind turbines in the southern end of the county and solar everywhere is becoming cheaper and more efficient.
“We can do better,” says Deardorff. “So why are we still on coal?”