Louisville Gas and Electric is meeting resistance from residents and the state Division of Waste Management over a proposed coal ash landfill near its Trimble County power station. The company already stores ash—which is the waste that’s leftover after coal is burned—in landfills and ponds at its Mill Creek and Cane Run power plants in Louisville. It has an ash pond at Trimble County, but the pond is almost full.
Kelley Leach has 150 acres on a ridge above LG&E’s plant outside Bedford. And he's right across the street from the proposed site of the 218 acre coal ash landfill.
“Start right here,” Leach points. “This is where LG&E’s property starts right here. And every bit of this woods and stuff you see now will be gone.”
As Leach drives down the country roads, we pass farms, some with cows and horses grazing. There’s woodland, and an occasional ravine. Most of this land is owned by Louisville Gas and Electric.
“This is still part of their property, there used to be a homestead right here that was part of neighbor’s of ours,” he said. “This is my house here, the yellow one. This is my grandmother’s right there.”
His grandmother has been living on the land for 70 years. If LG&E’s permit is granted, Leach expects their homestead to be within sight of the new coal ash landfill.
But the permit is facing a potential hurdle: in November, the Kentucky Division of Waste Management found a cave on the site. Ron Gruzesky is the manager of the division’s solid waste branch.
“As we discovered, there’s a pretty specific cave law in Kentucky that’s really not that old, 20 years or so,” he said. “And just about near the geographic center of this landfill, there is a cave feature.”
It’s illegal to remove or harm cave-dwelling creatures.
LG&E says the cave isn't actually a cave. Spokesman Chip Keeling says the company hired consultants who found what he calls a “cave-like structure.”
He says the structures don’t meet the state’s definition of a cave.
In photographs taken by the Division of Waste Management in November, captions describe the cave as ten feet high and more than 150 feet long. It has two smaller side passages, and a waterfall could be heard, but not seen. Geologist R.T. Hendricks photographed cave crickets and frogs and saw, but didn’t photograph, a cave salamander.
Keeling says those species shouldn’t be a problem. The company hired its own consultant to survey the cave, and they didn’t find any species that depended on the cave to live.
“They found some salamanders, crickets, some mice. They also identified four bats,” he said. “If there are bats in there, we would probably not disturb those, and then they’re just in there hibernating, then they leave.”
Gruzesky says even if the state decides LG&E is right about the cave…or cave-like structure…that doesn’t mean the permit will go forward because it’s very early in the application process. But if the landfill isn’t eventually permitted, as long as the company is burning coal, the ash will have to go somewhere.
Keeling says the proposed landfill would have the smallest possible effect on nearby waterways. But if it’s not permitted, the company has a contingency plan for Trimble County’s coal ash.
“Well the option that we’d probably be looking at right now would probably be trucking that fly ash to another one of our sites,” he said. “That would be more costly. Of course, what we’re trying to do is develop the least-cost option right now.”
That would mean Trimble County’s ash could end up in Louisville, at the Cane Run or Mill Creek power plants. Keeling says there’s capacity at both plants to handle the ash.
Kelley Leach says he doesn’t necessarily want to see that happen, out of concern for the neighbors of Louisville’s plants. Those living near Cane Run and Mill Creek say coal ash has contaminated their homes, and they fear the ash is also leaking heavy metals into the groundwater.
But Leach also doesn’t want to see similar problems plague his family and neighbors.
“Somewhere, somebody’s going to lose,” he said. “That’s the sad part about it, is somewhere somebody’s going to lose. We never think about these things until they happen to yourself.”
Keeling says LG&E expects to submit a formal response to the state’s concerns about the cave by mid-week. Then, it’ll be up to the Division of Waste Management to determine whether the Trimble County site is suitable for the landfill.