Two months after Louisville Gas & Electric’s (LG&E) coal ash pollution and Clean Water Act violations were nationally broadcast, the Sierra Club and Earthjustice have moved forward by filing a lawsuit in federal court against the utility company. Time-lapse photography from a camera strapped to a tree captured a year’s worth of images proving that dangerous coal ash wastewater from LG&E’s Mill Creek Generating Station is pouring unabated into the Ohio River. This photographic evidence, along with Google Earth satellite images from 1993 to the present, support the lawsuit, which details how LG&E is also violating the Clean Water Act. Under its existing permit, LG&E may at most only “occasionally” discharge into the river.
In the lawsuit, the Sierra Club and Earthjustice are asking a federal judge to order LG&E to stop discharging illegally. LG&E could face up to $68 million in penalties to account for the last five years of its illegal dumping, plus $37,500 for each day moving forward, until the violations are eliminated.
An unlined coal ash dump site for the Mill Creek coal-burning plant is the source of the pollution. The impoundment sits on the Ohio River about 500 feet from a large residential neighborhood and 1,000 feet from a middle school. Despite this close proximity, Kentucky law does not require LG&E to test its coal ash wastewater for specific toxic pollutants such as mercury. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) previously classified the coal ash pond as being “high hazard,” meaning a failure or misoperation of the ash pond dam would probably cause a loss of human life and significant environmental damage.
Louisville resident Mark Romines, whose home sits less than a quarter of a mile from the coal plant, said: “The Ohio River is already impaired by mercury pollution, and it’s not safe to fish there. To know that LG&E has been constantly polluting this water so close to where we live—it’s just sickening.”
Coal ash is the toxic byproduct left over when coal is burned to generate electricity. It contains dangerous chemicals including mercury, arsenic (a known carcinogen), lead, selenium, cadmium and many other harmful metals and pollutants. These toxic metals build up in ecosystems and most are dangerous even in very small amounts. LG&E’s own sampling of its Mill Creek coal ash dump found mercury levels in 2007 that exceeded Kentucky human health criteria by more than 20 times. Coal ash has already contaminated more than 200 lakes, streams, rivers and drinking water aquifers across the country.
“This is not a mere trickle; it’s a gushing flow of toxic coal ash pollution directly into the Ohio River,” said Earthjustice attorney Thom Cmar. “LG&E has tried to hide this contamination for too long, but now we’re taking action to keep these dangerous pollutants out of the Ohio River. We can’t allow LG&E to put nearby communities at risk.”
Coal-fired power plants are the largest source of toxic water pollution in America, dumping more toxic pollution into rivers and streams than any other industry in the United States. Every year, the nation’s coal plants produce 140 million tons of coal ash pollution—and those tons of toxic material are stored in unlined and unmonitored dumps, like at Mill Creek, leaking into groundwater and streams that nearby communities often rely on for drinking water. While the Clean Water Act does protect waterways from pollution, there are no federal safeguards specific to coal ash pollution. Household garbage is better regulated than toxic coal ash. The Sierra Club and Earthjustice are involved in a separate legal agreement along with nine other public health and environmental organizations and a Native American tribe compelling the EPA to finalize federal regulations dealing with the handling and disposal of coal ash waste by December 19th.