If the dam failed at the Ghent Power Station’s coal ash pond, it would only take 20 minutes for the toxic coal ash slurry to reach a residential neighborhood in Carroll County. Near the Brown Power Plant in Central Kentucky, homes on nearby Herrington Lake could get five feet of sludge. And at Louisville’s Mill Creek Power Station, the homes across the street from the plant’s ash pond would have a foot of the contaminated water within 30 minutes.
These are the details included in Emergency Action Plans posted online, required to be made available to the public for the first time last week due to new federal regulations.
They outline how power plants will react if there’s an emergency dam breach at the site’s coal ash ponds, potentially sending millions of gallons of toxic slurry into nearby neighborhoods. And they also reveal a new level of detail about how one of these disasters would affect the people living near the power plants.
But even though the plans are now technically public, the people who are put at risk by these sites are still unaware of the dangers or what to do in the event of an emergency.
Coal ash is stored in ponds at power plants across Kentucky. At five of the plants, the ponds are designated “high hazard,” because of the potential impacts if the dam were to fail. These are gigantic structures, where millions of gallons of sludge containing contaminants like mercury, cadmium and arsenic are held in place by earthen dams. A breach of any coal ash pond would bring with it certain environmental damage, and depending on the plant’s location, property damage and potential loss of life.
Louisville Gas & Electric spokeswoman Liz Pratt said the company’s new maps showing where the ash would go and how fast it would get there illustrate worst-case scenarios. She said the utility is constantly monitoring the ponds to make sure they’re structurally sound.
“Beyond these plans, we have strict ash storage impoundment integrity programs at our facilities for all of our ash ponds to ensure the structural integrity is sound,” she said. “So this includes inspections, monitoring and taking preventative maintenance measures.”
She added the maps are also required to use standardized modeling methods, which don’t take into account improvements the utilities have made at its ash ponds, like reinforcing the banks in some places or creating larger spillways.
The chance there would be a large-scale dam breach at any of these power plants is unlikely. But it’s not impossible. The worst-case scenarios have become reality twice in the past decade.
In December of 2008, the Tennessee Valley Authority’s dam in Kingston, Tennessee failed, covering 300 nearby acres with more than a billion gallons of coal ash slurry. And more recently, in 2014, a coal ash spill at a Duke Energy plant in North Carolina contaminated the Dan River.
And though it wasn’t coal ash, a similar spill of 300 million gallons of coal slurry in Martin County, Kentucky in 2000 polluted hundreds of miles of river and contaminated the water supply for thousands of residents.
The potential for these spills to cause damage of such a magnitude is exactly why the emergency plans should be public, said Earthjustice attorney Lisa Evans.
“Plans are so essential,” she said. “You know, emergency plans are just pro forma for dams, which ordinarily hold water. So it’s a no-brainer that contingency or emergency plans should be necessary for dams that are impounding toxic waste. And yet, it was only until last week the public could see these plans, and only until last month that the EPA actually required them.”
‘This is the first time I have seen this’
But while the plans are technically available to the public, they’re still not easy to find online. And for people living in the affected areas, there’s no concerted outreach to let them know about the plans’ existence.
Mark Romines has a direct view of the smokestacks of Mill Creek from his front porch. According to LG&E’s emergency map, it would take two hours for a foot of toxic sludge to accumulate on his property.
Romines isn’t surprised, though he thinks it would happen much faster than that because of how close he is to the pond.
“That’s just unbelievable,” he said. “This is the first time I have seen this.”
Romines said he’s been asking about the plant’s emergency plans for years to no avail. In fact, LG&E has had some version of these plans since 2010, though they weren’t shared with the public.
Louisville Metro Emergency Services spokesman Mitchell Burmeister said the agency is prepared to respond to whatever kind of situation may arise at Mill Creek. The ash pond has been there for decades; he said this summer, utility management and city emergency staff were planning to sit down and run through the various emergency scenarios that might arise, and how they would respond.
Burmeister said the plant has some outdoor sirens that would go off in case of an emergency, but the best way for area residents to stay informed is to sign up for the city’s LENS alert system.
“As soon as we receive a phone call from LG&E stating there’s been some sort of breach, we can use that notification system to alert residents in that affected area,” Burmeister said.
But that requires people knowing there could be a potential problem, and taking the initiative to sign up for the city’s alert system online. And in an area with a higher percentage of elderly residents than the city as a whole, some might lack the technical knowledge to go online to sign up for LENS.
“I am surprised that there has not been a message sent out to the residents of this area that they now have a danger plan, or their alertness plan for what to do in the event of an emergency,” Romines said.
Directly across the street from Mill Creek’s ash pond, several residents said no one had ever approached them with information about what to do if there was an emergency involving the plant. And when asked if anyone would be proactively reaching out to neighborhood residents, there’s disagreement between the city and utility about whose responsibility it is. Burmeister referred the question to LG&E, while LG&E spokeswoman Liz Pratt said it was Emergency Management’s job.
Progress to close LG&E’s coal ash ponds has already begun, and Pratt said all of them are scheduled to be closed by 2023.