New Federal Rules Will Change How Indiana Utilities Store Coal Ash

Jun 20, 2016

Coal ash pond at Indianapolis Power & Light's Harding Street Plant
Credit Hoosier Environmental Council

Coal ash is produced when you burn coal for electricity. It doesn’t biodegrade. It has to be stored. And Indiana has more coal ash storage ponds than any other state—84. But the federal rules for coal ash storage ponds are changing. Indiana Public Broadcasting’s Nick Janzen reports on steps within the state to rewrite the approach to storing coal ash.

Indianapolis Power and Light converted its Harding Street coal plants to run on natural gas to comply with new federal pollution standards, including a proposed 20-percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by 2030. IPL’s Harding Street plant burned its last load of coal earlier this year.   


Indianapolis Power and Light converted its Harding Street coal plants to run on natural gas to comply with new federal pollution standards, including a proposed 20-percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by 2030. IPL’s Harding Street plant burned its last load of coal earlier this year.

Coal ash is a byproduct that’s produced when power plants burn coal to produce electricity. Coal ash storage matters because it’s toxic.

“Really the biggest risk is contamination of water that’s used as a drinking water source,” says Dr. Indra Frank, Environmental Health and Water Policy director for the Hoosier Environmental Council. Coal ash contains a lot of heavy metals and other contaminants, which can cause cancer or damage the nervous system.

To close the ponds, IPL is going to cover the top with a waterproof liner, and then cover that with about three feet of sand and soil. The sides and bottom of the pond will remain unlined.

That worries some people, like Sierra Club Beyond Coal Campaign Representative Jodi Perras, who says IPL’s plan doesn’t account for the long term potential for groundwater contamination. “Where you put coal ash with no liner, which is the majority of these pits around the state,” Perras says, “there’s going to be ground water pollution underneath that.”

Perras collected signatures from 450 people asking IPL to move the coal ash into a lined, covered pit, which would prevent the coal ash from contaminating any water source.

But IPL says that their plan to close the Harding Street ponds complies with all state and federal rules and they don’t need to move the ash into a lined pond. That’s absolutely true for the current rules, but it may not be true for future rules, which are in the process of being rewritten.   

Last year the Environmental Protection Agency finalized the Disposal of Coal Combustion Residuals from Electric Utilities rule—basically, new regulations for coal ash storage. EPA leaves it up to the states to write a plan enforcing those rules. In Indiana, that job falls to the Department of Environmental Management, or IDEM.

Tim Maloney, senior policy director for the Hoosier Environmental Council, was one of seven people to comment at a public meeting held by IDEM. He says one of the most important things the new state plan can do is prohibit utilities from doing what IPL is currently doing at Harding Street—leaving coal ash in an unlined pond, a practice called closure in place.

“Closure in place, particularly for any lagoon or landfill that’s unlined, will continue to pose a risk for groundwater and we just don’t think that’s an appropriate approach.”

IPL will follow the current rules to close the eight ponds at the Harding Street plant, which will be finished by May 2021. As for the new rules, IDEM will finish a draft plan by the end of the year. The final plan requires federal approval from the Environmental Protection Agency.

WFYI’s Ashley Shuler contributed reporting.