You can’t see the smokestacks of the Cane Run Power Station from Stephanie Hogan’s home, even though she lives a block away. And while the power plant isn’t visible, it’s still a looming presence in Hogan’s life.
“Oh, he breathes so bad, he sounds like Darth Vader.” Hogan shakes her head, and her two-year-old son Cody wheezes. “You ain’t even been running.”
The family bought their trailer near the Louisville Gas and Electric-operated power plant about 15 months ago, and since then, Cody has developed serious respiratory problems. Eventually, his mom took him to a specialist, who pinpointed the potential cause of Cody’s sickness.
“I think it was the second visit, she asked where we lived,” Hogan said. “And I told her, and she said ‘oh, you live next to that power plant. You need to move.’”
But Hogan can’t move. She’s trapped by her trailer’s low resale value, as well as her son’s rising medical expenses. Cody has asthma. He’s had tubes installed in his ears twice and three times he’s come down with an unexplained fever. Hogan estimates she spent nearly $4,000 in doctor’s visits and medication last year.
She says the culprit is coal ash: the sometimes-fine, sometimes-chunky material that’s leftover after coal is burned. It coats her porch, and she doesn’t let Cody play outside anymore, no matter how much he begs.
An Inevitable Byproduct
Coal generates more than half of the nation’s energy and it’s burned in power plants in all but four states. One inevitable byproduct of burning coal is ash, and there’s a lot of coal ash in America.
So much, in fact, that “you could fill the boxcars of a freight train that would stretch from New York City to Melbourne, Australia every year with the coal ash that American power plants generate,” Jeff Stant said. He’s the director of the Environmental Integrity Project’s Coal Combustion Waste Initiative.
“A lot of this ash has got the consistency of talc. People breathe it in, their lungs never get rid of it. It has metals that cross the lung’s tissue into the blood stream. There have been studies done of the exposure of rats to this dust and other lab animals, and the results have been very disturbing.”
At the Cane Run plant, the ash is stored in a landfill and a pond. The pond is invisible from the road, but the landfill is pretty obvious: huge piles of slate-grey coal ash rising off the banks of the Ohio River. At the base of the landfill is a pauper’s cemetery.
Little lives in one of the houses facing the power plant. The Cane Run Power Station is one of three area LG&E coal-fired plants. It burns 1.3 million tons of coal every year. Last year, it produced 160,000 tons of coal ash.
Before the ash is placed in a landfill, it’s mixed with different materials that create a cement-like consistency. It’s loaded into piles, which is where LG&E’s Mike Winkler says it stays.
“It’s plenty heavy enough to stay in place,” he said. “And during the placement process if it’s too dry, then it’s wetted. We’ll have trucks that come through and spray it to give it wetness. But it’s got enough moisture in it that it doesn’t blow off in general.”
But as we walk down the street, Little points to the air above the landfill.
“Yeah. There it goes,” she said. “You see the black up there? If you notice, you’ll see some ash blowing. That’s what they’re trying to keep on their property, and it’s not happening.”
Sure enough, ash wisps are flying off. They end up on nearby porches and siding. For the neighbors, this is annoying, and also worrisome. Samples taken by the Louisville Metro Air Pollution Control District and, most recently, LG&E itself have confirmed the presence of fly ash on several area homes.
“Okay, here’s our ash pond!” Steve Turner exclaims. He’s the general manager at LG&E’s Cane Run Power Station, and he is giving Kathy Little and her husband Tony a tour of the plant.
“You can see bottom ash, but it’s down at the water level, so it stays wetted.”
After the company released the results of their sampling, they convened the three families whose homes were sampled for a meeting. LG&E is doing damage control.
But there are conflicting data. The first samples taken directly off their homes show alarmingly high amounts of fly ash. The second set, gathered from the air, shows much lower levels.
Turner stands in a conference room in front of a PowerPoint presentation about the company’s operation.
“So to get started, this is the Cane Run site,” he said. “We are a generating facility. We generate electricity. And we do that safely, reliably and while complying with all of our environmental permits.”
The people in the room want to talk about the ash. As Turner speaks, Debbie Walker shakes her head. She looks disgusted.
“Well, the health issues…” he trails off.
“We can’t leave because nobody’s going to buy our places because of this dump,” Walker said. “If you don’t think it’s a health issue I ask anybody in this room to go live by it.”
“Well, yeah, that’s what I thought.”
But the company isn’t sure what to do about it. Cane Run is a coal-fired power plant, and it’s impossible to burn coal without creating coal ash.
A Growing Problem
The plant’s pond and landfill hold hundred of thousands of tons of coal ash and that amount is growing. It’s growing because Americans’ consumption of coal is rising—from 1989 to 2009, the amount of coal burned in the U.S. increased by more than 100 million tons.
New pollution control devices on power plants are exacerbating the problem. Jeff Stant of the Environmental Integrity Project says while these devices reduce air pollution, they increase the amount of waste.
“The more you try to control the emissions of a power plant, the more toxic the ash becomes and the more ash you generate,” Stant said.
LG&E says it’s considering a few different options to control the ash the plant’s neighbors see flying off the landfill. They might put an adhesive on the landfill and they’re trying to reduce the amount of dust that’s kicked up by trucks on roads near the landfill. The company says more testing is needed to determine whether fly ash is leaving the site, but if Metro Government decides the dust is posing a nuisance to the plant’s neighbors, LG&E may be forced to take action.
The new landfill is designed to hold 16 to 20 years of coal ash, but the company estimates the plant won’t be burning coal for that long. If upcoming federal regulations make it too expensive to burn coal, the plant may switch to natural gas, or even shut down. Regardless, LG&E’s Mike Winkler says the coal ash will remain.
“It will stay,” he said. “Ultimately if this facility is closed from the standpoint of burning coal, then there are closure plans for landfills and ash ponds that you have to develop with the state, where essentially they’re capped with clay and then there’s monitoring that goes on associated with that.”
That doesn’t make Kathy Little feel better about living across from the landfill and pond. Especially since there’s nothing between the ash and the ground. She worries the groundwater is contaminated.
“They’ve put all this here,” Little said. “Now are we going to have to live with this, with this toxic dump, is basically what it is. Even if they cover it up, it’s a toxic dump.”
But LG&E says it’s not a toxic dump, and neither does the federal government…yet.
Coal Ash and the EPA
Kathy Little and Debbie Walker stand in Walker’s front yard, 50 feet from the ash landfill at the Cane Run plant. They watch as heavy machinery backs up, pushing ash from one pile to another.
Walker says she used to be able to see Indiana from her window. Now, she just sees the mountains of coal ash.
“That wasn’t here when we first moved here. If that was here when I first moved here, I wouldn’t have moved here,” she laughed. “There’s no way.”
Little says she feels abandoned by federal and state regulators.
“I have nothing against coal,” she said. “Don’t get me wrong—I don’t. The coal didn’t cause this situation. This private company caused this situation and Kentucky allowed them to do it. That’s who I blame.”
The women feel like there are no regulations in place. There are, but they’re not always easy to notice.
When a power company wants to build a landfill or storage pond, it has to get a permit from the Kentucky Department of Waste Management. For landfills, it also needs a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers. There’s a water quality certificate from the state for discharge, and a permit from Metro Government for air emissions.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t regulate coal ash. Last year it proposed two rules—one to regulate ash as a hazardous material and another to designate it a “special waste.” Environmental groups have been lobbying for the former, while the coal industry wants the latter.
Coal Ash and Recycling
LG&E’s John Voyles says if the EPA characterizes coal ash as a hazardous waste, it will halt coal ash recycling. Right now, there’s a small industry centered around repurposing coal ash in materials like cement. Voyles says all that ash could end up in a landfill if it’s suddenly declared toxic.
“If it’s declared hazardous waste, all of the beneficial reuses will disappear because you won’t have people wanting to say, I want to put a hazardous waste product in a gypsum wallboard or in cement,” he said. “Where does it go? If it’s declared hazardous, it’s hazardous.”
Ash recycling is something that the utility company likes to talk about. If the ash is reused, it doesn’t take up space in landfills or ponds. Plus, the utility company can profit off the waste.
Jeff Stant of the Environmental Integrity Project agrees with the utilities that recycling the ash is essential. But he says some of the so-called “beneficial reuses” for coal ash —like building roads or filling in wetlands—are even worse for the environment
But in reality, coal ash recycling is still a small industry. According to the American Coal Ash Association, nationwide about 41 percent of the coal ash produced in 2009 was recycled in some way. At Cane Run, that figure was much smaller for the same year—only about four percent of their ash was recycled. The rest goes to the landfill or pond.
In her trailer a block away from the plant, Stephanie Hogan watches her two-year-old son Cody play. Out of fear that his breathing problems were caused by the coal ash that coats her porch, Hogan won’t let him outside.
At this point, Hogan wants LG&E to fix the situation, no matter the cost.
“They’re going to have to upgrade what they have now and they want to pass it on to us. They want to pass it on to the consumers,” she said. She sees irony in the situation. “So, it’s like, you’re poisoning my child and you want me to pay for you not to poison him.”
But while a lot of the neighborhood’s anger is focused at the power company, many are bewildered why this is allowed to happen. Kathy Little has asked for help from Metro Government and the state, but still hasn’t seen results.
“You know, we work hard, we don’t sit over here on government assistance or anything like that, that’s for sure,” she said. “We all work very, very hard and pay taxes. We basically pay taxes to these government agencies that are supposed to protect our children. And we are paying a very high price for cheap electricity, for cheap power.”