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How Kentucky's Illegal Coal-Ash Contamination Typifies an American Crisis

Energy

The Kentucky Department of Environmental Protection (KDEP) had knowledge that a utility's pond had been discharging “highly contaminated ‘orange colored’ water” through a drain pipe, but a proposal from Kentucky Utilities remains on the table.

The company apparently wants to discharge even more orange water, which would be a byproduct of a proposed coal ash landfill on top of the main coal ash pond at the 60-year-old E.W. Brown coal-burning power plant, just outside Lexington. The pond is unlined, already contains 26 million tons of ash and is a stone's throw away from residential neighborhoods, vacation homes and Herrington Lake.

In the words of a new study compiled by the Sierra Club and Earthjustice, the proposal would be "piling on a problem" if approved.

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“Protecting the health of the local community is critical, and the state must manage these contaminants,” said Deborah Payne, health coordinator for the Kentucky Environmental Foundation. “When metals leach out of coal ash, they can move through groundwater into drinking water supplies, endangering public health.”

The study, Dangerous Waters: America’s Coal Ash Crisis, is a national one that mostly uses Kentucky to exemplify what an issue coal ash is for the communities living near it. According to the report, a person living within one mile of an unlined coal ash pond that co-disposes of coal refuse has a one-in-50 lifetime risk of cancer—more than 2,000 times higher than the EPA goal for cancer risk. According to the EPA, 1.54 million American children live near coal ash storage sites.

Coal-fired power plants in the U.S. produce 140 million tons of the hazardous solid waste each year. Much of it is stored in more than 1,400 sites in 45 states.

Kentucky has 48 coal ash ponds, eight of which are rated "high hazard." With 64,000 acre-feet, the state has the third-largest coal ash storage capacity in the nation. It's  enough to cover the Churchill Downs racetrack under 800 feet of toxic sludge.

The Sierra Club and Earthjustice uncovered KDEP's knowledge of the orange water through a public records request. Tests on the water showed arsenic at more than 14 times the amount determined safe for Kentucky drinking water. A dozen or so springs southeast of the plant's impoundments are discharging contaminants into Herrington Lake—a major recreational and fishing area—which has shown unhealthy levels of mercury, and discharges from the coal ash impoundments show significant levels of selenium. The groups also found that two of the springs contained boron at levels beyond the EPA’s Health Advisory for Children. Herrington Lake flows into the Kentucky River.

"The state has had information about [Kentucky Utilities owner Louisville Gas & Electric's] coal ash contamination for years, and has done nothing to act on it,” Kristin Henry, senior attorney for the Sierra Club, said in a statement. “The problem has persisted and may be getting worse.”

In response to the investigation, KDEP has asked the utility to submit an ash pond closure plan and to explain the impacts of piling tens of millions of tons of coal ash landfill on top of a leaking pond. KDEP's Division of Waste also said it would reissue public notice and open up the proposal for public comments.

"Kentucky power plants generate more than 9 million tons of dangerous coal ash each year, and none of it is federally regulated. Household garbage is better regulated than this toxic mess," Earthjustice attorney Thom Cmar said.

"Kentucky's waters are being poisoned, and Kentucky families are paying the price for lax federal and state oversight."

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A volcano erupts on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island on Dec. 9, 2019. Michael Schade / Twitter

A powerful volcano on Monday rocked an uninhabited island frequented by tourists about 30 miles off New Zealand's coast. Authorities have confirmed that five people died. They expect that number to rise as some are missing and police officials issued a statement that flights around the islands revealed "no signs of life had been seen at any point,", as The Guardian reported.

"Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island," the police said in their official statement. "Police is working urgently to confirm the exact number of those who have died, further to the five confirmed deceased already."

The eruption happened on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island, an islet jutting out of the Bay of Plenty, off the country's North Island. The island is privately owned and is typically visited for day-trips by thousands of tourists every year, according to The New York Times.

Michael Schade / Twitter

At the time of the eruption on Monday, about 50 passengers from the Ovation of Seas were on the island, including more than 30 who were part of a Royal Caribbean cruise trip, according to CNN. Twenty-three people, including the five dead, were evacuated from the island.

The eruption occurred at 2:11 pm local time on Monday, as footage from a crater camera owned and operated by GeoNet, New Zealand's geological hazards agency, shows. The camera also shows dozens of people walking near the rim as white smoke billows just before the eruption, according to Reuters.

Police were unable to reach the island because searing white ash posed imminent danger to rescue workers, said John Tims, New Zealand's deputy police commissioner, as he stood next to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in a press conference, as The New York Times reported. Tims said rescue workers would assess the safety of approaching the island on Tuesday morning. "We know the urgency to go back to the island," he told reporters.

"The physical environment is unsafe for us to return to the island," Tims added, as CNN reported. "It's important that we consider the health and safety of rescuers, so we're taking advice from experts going forward."

Authorities have had no communication with anyone on the island. They are frantically working to identify how many people remain and who they are, according to CNN.

Geologists said the eruption is not unexpected and some questioned why the island is open to tourism.

"The volcano has been restless for a few weeks, resulting in the raising of the alert level, so that this eruption is not really a surprise," said Bill McGuire, emeritus professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, as The Guardian reported.

"White Island has been a disaster waiting to happen for many years," said Raymond Cas, emeritus professor at Monash University's school of earth, atmosphere and environment, as The Guardian reported. "Having visited it twice, I have always felt that it was too dangerous to allow the daily tour groups that visit the uninhabited island volcano by boat and helicopter."

The prime minister arrived Monday night in Whakatane, the town closest to the eruption, where day boats visiting the island are docked. Whakatane has a large Maori population.

Ardern met with local council leaders on Monday. She is scheduled to meet with search and rescue teams and will speak to the media at 7 a.m. local time (1 p.m. EST), after drones survey the island, as CNN reported.

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