Kathy Little and Debbie Walker stand in Walker’s front yard, 50 feet from the ash landfill at Louisville Gas & Electric‘s Cane Run plant. They watch as heavy machinery backs up, pushing ash from one pile to another.Both women have lived in the neighborhood for decades—Little for 33 years, Walker for 23. 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 and Walker both say the coal ash in their neighborhood has caused serious health problems. They’ve found ash on their homes, and sampling from the city and LG&E have confirmed its presence. And they’re angry. 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.
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.
“It has to be ash that’s put in concrete or cement or shingles in a way that it’s encapsulated and the metal leaching potential is made very low,” Stant said.
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 shouldered by ratepayers. But she still finds the situation sadly ironic.
“They’re going to have to upgrade what they have now and they want to pass it on to us,” she said. “They want to pass it on to the consumers. 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.
“We all work very, very hard and pay taxes,” she said. “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.”