Louisville Activists Head To Washington For Climate March Wednesday, Apr 26 2017 

It’s a busy month to be an environmental activist. Galvanized by President Donald Trump’s choice of cabinet members who reject the scientific consensus that the earth’s climate is changing — and that humans are contributing — national groups have planned several public demonstrations.

But this year presented a few scheduling conflicts for Louisville’s environmental community.

The rest of the country held marches last Saturday — Earth Day — to support science and scientific inquiry. But here, Thunder Over Louisville meant that synergy was impossible downtown (though an Earth Walk was held in Iroquois Park). So, activists held a similar march last Sunday.

And this upcoming weekend, while around the country environmentally-minded folks will be marching in support of climate change action on Trump’s 100th day in office, in Louisville it’s the Derby Festival Marathon.

“There are no permits to be had on that day,” said Drew Foley, co-chair of the Greater Louisville Sierra Club.

So instead, the Sierra Club, Louisville Climate Action, 350 Louisville and others combined the city’s marches for one event last weekend. And the local groups are sending a contingent of about a hundred people to Washington, D.C. on Saturday to join the big national march.

Climate change, caused by rising levels of carbon dioxide from human activity, is having diverse effects around the country. In Louisville, scientists say the most obvious signs are rising temperatures and more intense rainfall. These, in turn can lead to flooding, drought and increased air pollution.

Sally Craven is the vice president of the Louisville Climate Action Network. She’s going to the march in Washington, too.

“We are out of time for dragging our heels and being wishy-washy about it,” Craven said. “We need to honor the agreement we made in Paris, we need to get serious about reducing our greenhouse gas emissions. And the time is now.”

The march is about more than just climate, Foley said. There are issues of economic equality and environmental justice woven into the concept as well.

“It’s technically called a ‘march for climate, jobs and justice,’” he said. “It’s really hard to fight for one thing without the other. Our fight for protecting the climate has to be rooted in those issues as well.”

Buses will leave Louisville for Washington, D.C. on Friday evening. There’s more information here.

Energy Star Program For Homes And Appliances Is On Trump’s Chopping Block Wednesday, Apr 26 2017 

Appliance manufacturers and home builders are in Washington, D.C., today to celebrate a popular energy efficiency program, even as it’s slated for elimination in President Trump’s proposed budget.

You probably know the program’s little blue label with the star — the Environmental Protection Agency says 90 percent of U.S. households do.

“The Energy Star brand has brand recognition on par with, like, Coke and Pepsi,” says Steve Byers, CEO of EnergyLogic. His company, which is among those receiving an Energy Star award at this year’s event, inspects buildings to make sure they qualify for the program’s seal of approval. “This is a very successful program,” he says. “I don’t know what more one could want out of a government program.”

In fact, the 25-year-old Energy Star program appears to be targeted simply because it’s run by the federal government. It’s one of 50 EPA programs that would be axed under Trump’s budget plan, which would shrink the agency’s funding by more than 30 percent. (The U.S. Department of Energy also helps administer Energy Star, and would see a 5.6 percent budget cut.)

Critics of Energy Star say the government should get involved in the marketplace only when absolutely necessary. But that argument doesn’t hold sway for the program’s legions of supporters, which span nonprofits, companies and trade groups.

“These cuts make no sense,” says Lowell Ungar, senior policy adviser with the nonprofit American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. His group, along with about 80 other nonprofits and companies, has written to Congress urging it to keep the program. More than 1,000 companies have called for strengthening the program in another letter, organized by the Alliance to Save Energy.

“The bottom line is proposed cuts to Energy Star would harm American consumers, they would destroy jobs, and they would make air pollution worse,” Ungar says.

The federal government launched Energy Star in 1992 to rate the efficiency of computer monitors. Now it covers dozens of product categories, from washers to electronics and homes.

Here’s how it works: The government sets criteria for efficient products. A third party inspects goods or housing, and if they meet the criteria, manufacturers can use the familiar blue sticker to market the product as energy efficient.

In a North Denver development called Midtown, Steve Eagleburger of EnergyLogic was recently inspecting a home while construction workers put on finishing touches. This part of the Energy Star program has existed since 1995.

“What we’re doing here is checking to make sure this attic is insulated,” Eagleburger said as he stood on a ladder and peered through a raised attic hatch. “This one is not insulated at all.”

He makes a note on a tablet, then he’s off to the next thing — a checklist of dozens of items such as fans and air-duct seals. This house won’t get the Energy Star label unless it fulfills all the requirements.

Energy Star is a voluntary program. It costs about $50 million a year to run but punches above its weight in impact. In 2014, the EPA estimates the program helped American consumers and businesses save $34 billion dollars, and prevent more than 300 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions.

A study published last month in the journal Nature Energy found that Energy Star-rated buildings in Los Angeles used nearly 20 percent less energy compared with other buildings.

The little blue label also has an audience in countries such as Mexico and Canada.

“We do see that actually as a distinguishing factor,” says Mike Gazzano of Delta Products, which makes fans for bathroom ventilation and other uses. He says customers consider Energy Star the mark of “a premium product” in terms of engineering and technology.

The idea for eliminating Energy Star might have come from conservative groups such as the Heritage Foundation, which targets a range of efficiency programs in its own budget blueprint.

“This is something that the private sector can market and sell as a great quality for their product. So why is the government trying to nudge people in one direction when they simply shouldn’t need to,” says Nick Loris, an energy and environment policy fellow at the foundation.

Another critic is Myron Ebell, a climate change skeptic with the Competitive Enterprise Institute and head of Trump’s EPA transition team. “It’s good that Energy Star is a voluntary program,” he says in a statement, “but it’s not clear why taxpayer dollars should be used to promote some products over other products.”

Energy Star has also weathered a scandal. In 2010, workers at the Government Accountability Office posed as product developers and got the Energy Star label for fictitious products. That launched the third-party certification that exists now.

Doug Johnson, vice president of technology policy with the trade group Consumer Technology Association, says that process can take time out of the already crunched product development cycle.

“It’s a part of the program that we think should be reexamined,” he says. “In fact we’ve been advocates for improving that part of the Energy Star program.”

Johnson says there are also other successful federal programs such as EnergyGuide that measure efficiency. Still, he doesn’t think the entire Energy Star program should go away.

Ultimately, it will be up to Congress to decide whether shoppers continue to see the familiar blue sticker on goods in the showroom.

Grace Hood is an energy and environment reporter with Colorado Public Radio. You can follow her @gracehood.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Festival Of Faiths: Making A Religious Case For Environmental Stewardship Thursday, Apr 20 2017 

This year’s Festival of Faiths is underway in Louisville. The next several days feature a variety of speakers talking about this year’s theme: compassion.

One of those speakers is Nana Firman, the Muslim Outreach Director for non-profit GreenFaith. I spoke with Firman about how she uses the Koran to teach Muslims about the importance of caring for the environment and raising awareness about climate change. Listen to our conversation in the player above.

On how the Koran encourages Muslims to be good stewards of the environment:

“In the Islamic teaching, we have a lot of reminder in terms of protecting the earth and caring for the earth. For example, one of the verses in the Koran, our holy book, mentions that as human beings, we are the guardians, the caretakers of this earth.”

On how she makes the case that Muslims have a duty to combat climate change:

“But then I present to them, you know, every one of us can do something to tackle this climate change, first it’s like from ourselves, individually, because climate change is not just a scientific or environmental issue, but it’s also a moral and ethical issue.”

On how GreenFaith works with all types of faith, and encourages them to work together on environmental issues:

“Because we are all in this thing together, no matter what you believe. We are all experiencing the same thing, and we have to work together and hopefully, God willing, when we work together, we are going to go faster for the change.”

Study Seeks To Determine Health Effects Of Coal Ash On Louisville Kids Thursday, Apr 20 2017 

A researcher at the University of Louisville wants to know whether coal ash is in homes in Southwest Louisville and how it’s potentially affecting the children living there.

U of L public health researcher Kristina Zierold is about halfway through a five-year study of the issue, and is looking for additional participants. Her study is looking at homes in Southwest Louisville and Bullitt County, within a 10 mile radius of either of the city’s power plants.

Coal is currently burned and stored at Louisville Gas & Electric’s Mill Creek Power Plant; the company converted the Cane Run Power Plant to natural gas in 2015, but ash remains on the site in a pond and landfill.

Coal ash is a byproduct of burning coal for electricity, but it also contains numerous heavy metals. Zierold’s study involves testing homes to see if coal ash is present — both by taking air samples and lifting dust from the child’s bedroom. She’ll then test the child’s neurological performance with computer tests, and a child behavior checklist filled out by parents. She’ll also test the child’s toenail clippings, to see if they have high levels of metals in their bodies.

“And what we’re hoping to find out is if coal ash affects performance like attention, concentration, fine motor skills,” Zierold said.

Coal ash has been in the news lately, as Kentucky works to incorporate the federal government’s new standards into existing state law. But in doing so, the state is also significantly weakening its oversight over the planning, engineering and siting of new coal ash landfills.

Zierold has about 108 study participants already, but is looking for nearly 200 more. Eligible children are between six and 14 years old, and live in ZIP codes 40109, 40118, 40177, 40211, 40214, 40215, 40216, 40258, or 40272. The children and their parents will be compensated for participating in the study.

Those interested in taking part in the study should contact Zierold at 502-216-9673 or Kristina.Zierold@louisville.edu. More information is here.

LG&E, Intervenors Agree To Smaller Utility Rate Increase In Settlement Wednesday, Apr 19 2017 

Louisville Gas and Electric has reached a settlement with intervenors in the company’s rate case that’s pending before state regulators.

LG&E had initially asked the Kentucky Public Service Commission to approve a rate increase that would have raised the average residential customer’s bill by about $13 a month. The settlement agreement calls for a smaller increase — about $8.24.

One of the most controversial provisions of the utility’s proposal was the way it proposed to raise those rates: not by changing the rate people pay for electricity and gas, but by changing the basic service charge. The service charge is the flat rate that all customers pay, regardless of usage.

Critics fought that plan, saying it would disproportionately hurt low-income customers, and disincentivize customer investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy.

Under the agreement, LG&E agreed to a much smaller increase: only about $4 a month for customers who use both electric and gas, as opposed to the more than $21 a month the company was seeking.

The utility will raise the electric basic service charge gradually — from $10.75 a month to $11.50 on July 1 of this year to $12.25 on July 1, 2018. The gas service charge will be raised from $13.50 to $16.35 beginning July 1.

The settlement also calls for LG&E to withdraw its proposal for deploying advanced meters across its entire territory. In a news release, the utility said it would continue its voluntary program for customers that want advanced meters and further study the issue.

“There were a large number of parties with different interests involved in this case and we are pleased to have reached a settlement that benefits our customers and their constituent groups,” said Kent Blake, LG&E and KU chief financial officer, in a statement. “The agreement gives us the ability to enhance our reliability and continue providing safe and reliable service to our customers while meeting the needs of the parties to this case.”

The agreement was reached with almost all of the intervenors in the case, including Louisville Metro Government, the Kentucky Attorney General’s Office, the Sierra Club, Kroger and the Metropolitan Housing Coalition.

Louisville Metro Government filed to intervene last year, with city officials citing their concerns about low-income residents and the city’s utility bills. Metro Government spends more than $17 million each year on utility bills. In a press release, officials say they’ll spend $650,000 less each year under the terms of the settlement than they would have under LG&E’s original proposal.

“Our work to limit the increase on fixed charges and to the rates cities pay for street lights is a big win for everyone in Jefferson County,” said Jefferson County Attorney Mike O’Connell, who represented the city in the case.

This agreement is subject to approval by the Public Service Commission. The PSC is scheduled to consider the case on May 9.

This story has been updated.

NERVE: Documentary Tells Story Of Kentucky’s Chemical Weapons Problem Tuesday, Apr 18 2017 

After coming home from the Vietnam War, Craig Williams was looking forward to some normalcy. But in 1984, he discovered that the Department of Defense was tasked with getting rid of over 500 tons of toxic nerve gas and other chemical weapons that were stockpiled in his small Kentucky hometown.

That’s when, filmmaker Ben Evans says, Williams and other concerned citizens began the fight of their lives, which ultimately sparked the formation of the Kentucky Environmental Foundation.

“It really started as a small group of Kentuckians in Berea who were trying to figure out how to stop this plan to incinerate a bunch of chemical weapons that are stored at the Bluegrass Army Depot out in Richmond,” Evans says. “Right there next to Berea.”

Now, nearly three decades later, Evans’ latest documentary “NERVE: How a Small Kentucky Town Led the Fight to Safely Dismantle the World’s Chemical Weapons” chronicles the process.

It’s a project that has been nearly that long in the making, as much of the archived footage used by Evans was captured by documentary filmmaker Joe Gray, who in the 90s, wanted to produce a film that examined the question of how to dispose of deteriorating chemical weapons.

Although Gray followed the hearings and shot raw footage of interviews, he never received the funding he needed to edit and produce a documentary on the subject.

That’s where Evans has picked up — presenting the archived footage alongside new interviews with key players from that time, like Williams.

“What’s inspiring about the film is that they went from ‘Not in my backyard’ to ‘Not on this planet’ — to kind of borrow a line from the film,” Evans says. “They realized this would end up somewhere and someone else would suffer the consequences and the same situation was happening at these other sites.”

“NERVE,” which is the winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the 2016 Environmental Film Festival at Yale, has its Louisville premiere Wednesday at 7 p.m. It will be shown at Bellarmine University’s Cralle Theater and is free and open to the public. More information is available here.

A Coal Company Is Planning A Major Solar Project On A Former Kentucky Strip Mine Tuesday, Apr 18 2017 

In the first project of its kind, a Kentucky coal company is partnering with a global renewable energy giant to explore putting a major solar installation on a former mountaintop removal coal mine.

Coal company Berkeley Energy Group and EDF Renewable Energy have been working on the initial phase of the project for more than a year. Although it’s still in the early phases, the plan includes putting 50 to 100 megawatts of solar panels on a surface mine site outside of Pikeville.

This would be the biggest solar plant in the state — potentially 10 times larger than the solar array at Kentucky Utilities’ Brown Station in Central Kentucky.

“Appalachia has long been an energy producer that has fueled the whole country,” said former state auditor Adam Edelen, now of Edelen Strategic Ventures, who is also involved in the project. “There’s no reason that shouldn’t continue; we just need to make sure we have an all-of-the-above energy approach, and I think incorporating solar and training and some of the best and brightest and hardest-working people you’ll ever find into a next generation industry is really a profound opportunity.”

From Berkeley Energy’s perspective, solar is a natural addition to the company’s portfolio and a potential moneymaker. Project Development Manager Ryan Johns said using mined-out sites for solar is one way for the land to be productive post-mining, rather than sitting vacant. He said first and foremost, Berkeley considers itself a coal company, though the company also has oil and gas assets.

“For us, this is not a competition against coal in any way,” he said. “What we’re wanting is as much coal to be mined as possible. What we look at is as kind of an offset to coal. This area has been mined, there’s no more coal to be mined, so now you can still have energy being provided for this area. It’s still providing jobs, it’s still helping the economy, it’s still providing energy for our country.”

If the project is realized, it’ll be one of the more consequential energy projects in the U.S. today, said Kiran Bhatraju. He’s the CEO of renewable energy company Arcadia Power and a Pikeville native.

“I really don’t think you can overstate the importance of this project and what it means for the region and for renewable energy writ large, to say we can build competitive projects anywhere in the country,” he said.

Real Reclamation

On the way to the grassy mountaintop removal site about 12 miles northeast of Pikeville, there’s a billboard sitting about the town of Zebulon. “Our Past, Our Future: Coal,” it proclaims.

In reality, the future of Eastern Kentucky may be more complicated than that.

Kenny Stanley drives me in his Chevy truck up the mountain to take a look at the potential site of Kentucky’s largest solar array. This part of the mountain has been reclaimed, but there’s still coal being mined on an adjacent site. When the wind blows right, you can hear the distant sounds of machinery, but otherwise it’s quiet. Birds chirp. At one point, Stanley points to two turkeys pecking in the bushes.

This isn’t a typical solar site. For one thing, it’s not flat, though there are some large flat areas. It’s likely some of the land will be re-contoured if the project is built.

And then there’s the issue of soil stability. You can’t build a major solar array if there’s a chance the soil will start compacting at some point.

Erica Peterson | wfpl.org

The view of the potential solar site from the ground.

“We’re definitely going to be spending more time on the geotechnical investigation than we might on another site, just because it’s not what we would call ‘native soil,’” said Doug Copeland, Regional Development Manager for EDF. “So, this was a mountain, it was taken apart, and now it’s going to be graded back. So, once you get more than a couple inches below the soil, you’re not quite as certain what you might find as when you’re building a solar project on farmland or in the California desert or even on old timberland. It’s definitely going to require a little more work than you might otherwise.”

But there are two other things that the site has going for it: Roads crisscross the mountain — providing lots of easy ways in — and power lines stretch overhead to carry the solar energy to customers.

Berkeley and EDF don’t know who those customers are yet, though EDF has already filed an application with PJM Interconnection, the region’s energy market. The plan is for the solar energy to be sold directly to a large corporate customer.

“Obviously, there are a lot of big companies out who that would love the opportunity to use renewable energy produced in Appalachia,” Edelen said.

And that’s true. As more and more large companies have self-imposed renewable energy mandates, they want to locate in places where they’ll have access to renewables. Currently, Kentucky isn’t one of those places.

Another thing Kentucky doesn’t have: a renewable energy mandate. State Rep. Mary Lou Marzian of Louisville has introduced bills proposing something similar for years; the measures never pass.

This year, the bill was amended on the House floor with anti-renewable energy provisions.

And this, said coal executive Ryan Johns, puts this project at a disadvantage by making it a little riskier for a renewable energy company to invest here.

“It would be spectacular if Kentucky had some renewable mandate,” Johns said. “We think that would help drive other businesses to come in. but whether that happens or not, we are going to go ahead with the project.”

Coal Mining Culture

Pike County is still one of Kentucky’s largest coal producers; in 2015, it produced nearly 7 million tons of coal. That’s a 25 percent drop from the coal that came out of the county as recently as 2009.

But there are other institutions here, too: there’s a university and a major hospital. On Monday, downtown didn’t feel as desolate as many small Appalachian towns can. Parking was at a premium; people were setting up carnival rides on one end of downtown for “Hillbilly Days,” the annual festival that starts later this week.

At Small Town Tattoo — which doesn’t, according to a posted sign, do cheap tattoos — Clyde Harless said his business suffers along with the ups and downs of the local coal industry. But lately, things seem to have settled out.

Harless’ face is covered with tattoos, as are the visible parts of his body. He said people come into the shop wanting coal-related tattoos all the time.

“Like helmet, pickaxe, stuff like that,” he said.

That hasn’t changed as more miners are laid off. Most people, he said, are getting these tattoos for family or cultural reasons.

But in 2015, according to the latest county-level data available, there were only about 1,600 coal miners working in the county. That’s down from more than 4,400 in 2009.

Hope for the Future

If this project gets off the ground, that by itself will be significant; Edelen calls it a “moonshot.”

But if it’s a success, both Johns and Edelen say it could be transformative for Appalachia.

Back in 2009, nonprofit Appalachian Voices estimated nearly 1.2 million acres of land in the region had been cleared by mountaintop removal coal mining. What would it mean for the struggling communities if there are solar fields on some of those?

“It means real economic diversification,” Edelen said. “Coal will see some revitalization, but I don’t think anyone believes its shoulders will be so large again that it can support the entire region. So what we’re talking about doing is bringing in a new industry.”

One of Berkeley’s demands before choosing EDF as a partner was that the project would use current and displaced coal miners from the area. With a solar project, most of the jobs will be in construction, and Johns said many miners would be well-suited for the job.

The project’s organizers don’t have projections yet on number of construction or permanent jobs.

“Our guys are very skilled workers,” he said. “They worked with a lot of metal, a lot of welding, a lot of heavy machinery. So I would believe a lot of these men would be able to pick this up very quickly. It definitely would require some additional training, but I believe it would be a matter of weeks and not months.”

Ultimately, all the people involved in the project are eyeing it as an economic venture, and for it to get off the ground, the solar energy produced will have to be cost-competitive. But the partners say they think they can make it work. If everything falls into place, construction could begin as early as next year.

And maybe, the next generation will be lining up for tattoos of suns and solar panels from Clyde Harless at Small Town Tattoo.

Weekend Symposium Focuses On Benefits Of Urban Trees Thursday, Apr 13 2017 

Louisville is losing approximately 54,000 trees a year — according to a 2015 study — and city partners are ramping up education efforts to encourage tree planting on private land.

To help, the Partnership for a Green City is hosting an Urban Tree Symposium this Saturday to teach people about the various aspects of urban trees — from pests to pruning to environmental benefits.

Partnership for a Green City director Brent Fryrear said often, city dwellers are apprehensive about trees because of worries about maintenance. But the benefits outweigh any pitfalls like leaf raking.

“Most people don’t understand the carbon that trees take in and sequester, that just the availability of trees can change a flooding situation by absorbing stormwater,” Fryrear said. “We want people to understand the basic value of trees, taking it back to that.”

Trees also play a huge role in helping to mitigate the urban heat island, which is a growing problem in Louisville.

The Partnership generally puts on several symposia a year, but Fryrear said this is the first focused solely on trees.

“We want people to understand what the value and the benefits of trees are upfront and so they will be able to manage their trees at home, hopefully, or in their neighborhood,” he said. “Also take the education out from a really stellar set of speakers that are passionate about trees and infuse that passion throughout the community.”

Speakers include Jill Jonnes, who wrote “Urban Forests: A Natural History of Trees and People in the American Cityscape”; University of Kentucky Horticulture professor Bill Fountain and Limbwalker Tree owners Chris O’Bryan and Cory Petry. The event will end with a tree giveaway sponsored by Louisville Metro’s Division of Community Forestry.

For more information, click here.

Coal Ash Pollution Threatens Groundwater At Western Kentucky Power Plant Monday, Apr 10 2017 

The plume of polluted water was black. In the satellite images, it snaked from the coal ash landfill at the D.B. Wilson Power Plant in Western Kentucky, about 40 minutes south of Owensboro. The water went through a ditch, until it reached a sediment pond. There, the images showed the black plume spreading through the murky green water, before it dissipated.

The black water — which state regulators described as having a “very pronounced unpleasant odor” — had arsenic levels that exceed the federal standard by nearly a thousand times. Regulators say it’s possible the pollution has been seeping from the landfill for more than a decade, eventually making its way into the Green River and potentially contaminating the groundwater.

Big Rivers Electric — the utility that owns the power plant — has been cited for some of the pollution, and the Kentucky Department for Environmental Protection is still investigating the extent of the problem. The DEP declined a request for an interview but said in an email the department is continuing to work with the utility to address the concerns.

And as the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet works to weaken the state’s oversight of coal ash, there are unanswered questions about how sites like this will be dealt with.

Arsenic Nearly 1,000 Times the Federal Standard

During a routine inspection last October, Division of Waste Management geologists noticed black, smelly water seeping from the perimeter of the coal ash landfill at the D.B. Wilson Plant into an unlined ditch. From there, the polluted plume flowed into a sediment pond that eventually releases water into the Green River.

“It was a one-time event,” said Big Rivers spokeswoman Jennifer Keach. “We are working with the state to develop a remediation plan and Big Rivers is in compliance with all permits.”

But photos suggest the pollution has been ongoing for years. The plume is so dark it’s visible on Google Earth and has been captured in the site’s historic images for years. Regulators say the pollution could have begun as early as 2003.

Kentucky Division of Waste Management

Google Earth image from June 9, 2016,  showing the black leachate.

Aside from being unpleasant and unsightly, testing revealed the black water was a veritable chemical soup. It contained high levels of chemicals like antimony, chlorides and molybdenum.

But the most striking problem was the amount of arsenic in the black water. Regulators from the Kentucky Division of Waste Management found it contained more than 980 times the federal standard.

“Those arsenic numbers are off the charts,” said Earthjustice attorney Thomas Cmar, who has pursued litigation against other coal ash sites in Kentucky for similar pollution issues.

The arsenic numbers were so high they also merited a mention in testimony from a state regulator about Kentucky’s proposed changes to its coal ash regulations, which are still in progress. In written testimony, Division of Waste Management geologist Todd Hendricks cited the pollution at the Wilson plant — though not by name — as an example of the potential hazards coal ash can pose to human health and the environment.

“Fluids containing arsenic at this level may be characteristically hazardous because of toxicity,” he wrote. “Contained landfills are regulated to the highest standards of any solid or special waste sites or facilities, but I have never seen leachate analysis from a contained landfill that indicated that the leachate itself could be characteristically hazardous.”

If the leachate is toxic enough to be characteristically hazardous, it has to be treated like toxic waste. Even if it’s not, it poses a potential threat to surface water and groundwater.

And those are the two major concerns regulators outlined in a follow-up letter sent to Big Rivers in March. Testing showed that both surface and groundwater contamination at the site is possible: Elevated levels of cadmium and arsenic were found in groundwater monitoring wells. And at the point where the wastewater is discharged into an unnamed tributary of the Green River, arsenic levels were slightly higher than the company’s permit allowed, prompting a Notice of Violation.

Groundwater Contamination

The D.B. Wilson plant was already being scrutinized when regulators saw the black plume. In 2014, Big Rivers was required to submit a Groundwater Assessment Plan to the state after high levels of chlorides were found in one of the site’s groundwater monitoring wells.

But in October 2016, regulators found signs that other chemicals could be migrating into groundwater: cadmium and arsenic. And they were concerned that the black water seeping from the coal ash landfill could have something to do with it.

Courtesy Kentucky Division of Waste Management

A Google Earth image from October 7, 2013, still seeming to show the black leachate.

Right now, the black water drains from the landfill into an unlined ditch, and eventually goes into a settling pond before being released into a tributary of the Green River. Big Rivers responded to the Kentucky Division of Waste Management’s concerns with a plan to add large amounts of a chemical called Klaraid into the settling pond.

“Their plan is basically, we’re going to dump some chemicals into the wastewater that will help the solid arsenic that might be in particle form settle out more effectively,” said Cmar after reviewing the document. “So, the water will be clearer. It won’t necessarily be clean.”

That concern is reflected in a letter from the state requesting more analysis.

“The cabinet, I think, very appropriately pointed out, if you have an unlined pond, which apparently this one is, you’re running the risk by treating in order to settle out the arsenic, of trading a surface water problem for a groundwater problem,” said Tom FitzGerald of the Kentucky Resources Council.

Treating the water with chemicals might cause the arsenic to settle to the bottom of the pond, FitzGerald said, which would mean the water that’s released into the river would be cleaner. But the arsenic that settles could work its way into the groundwater, creating new problems.

New Rules

The problems at Big Rivers’ Wilson plant are coming to a head as the Kentucky Department for Environmental Protection prepares to enact new regulations that will weaken some aspects of the state’s regulation of coal ash sites.

The DEP is revamping the regulations to incorporate new, federal standards for coal ash sites. But in doing so, they’re also eliminating the current comprehensive permitting program that utilities have to undergo in order to build a new coal ash landfill, like the one at the Wilson plant. Rather than subject these massive engineering projects to scrutiny by state professionals before they’re built — a process that DEP officials said was essential back in 2010 — utilities will be able to self-certify the projects. If there are problems, enforcement will be after the fact, through state or citizen lawsuits.

Complicating the situation with Big Rivers is the fact that the utility’s managing director of environmental services played a major role in the rewriting of the regulations. As WFPL reported in January, those regulations were drafted with extensive one-sided input from electric utilities.

Many of the documents showing the sausage-making refer to an industry group called the Utility Information Exchange of Kentucky. Big Rivers’ Tom Shaw is the former chairman of the group, and emails obtained through an open records request show he played an integral role in arranging meetings with other utility representatives and regulators over the regulations and commenting on the drafts.

Keach, the Big Rivers spokeswoman, declined to make Shaw available for an interview.

State regulators have repeatedly defended the new regulations, saying they will continue inspection of the sites and enforcing the law. The latest problems at the D.B. Wilson plant were discovered during a routine inspection; the timing and frequency of these inspections are currently at the discretion of regulators, and the new law isn’t any more specific.

FitzGerald said even with the best intentions, looking for problems is more difficult when you’re essentially walking into a site blind.

“I think that your inspection and enforcement program becomes more complicated when you don’t have access to, when you haven’t reviewed the technical plans and specifications and imposed specific conditions to address site-specific concerns,” FitzGerald said.

He said the current regulations are far from perfect — in the case of Wilson, there’s a chance the pollution problem was going on for 14 years before it was detected by regulators.

But changing the regulations to allow regulators even less say over how landfills are built — and where key monitoring wells that detect groundwater pollution are placed — could make the problems even worse.

“You’re stumbling in after the fact, and you may not be able to effectively fix a problem that could have been avoided in the first place,” he said.

The Problem at Hand

In response to emailed questions, DEP spokesman John Mura said the Wilson plant would be allowed to transition to the new regulations when they’re in effect.

But the state is relying heavily on the provisions in Kentucky Administrative Regulations Chapter 45 to require Big Rivers to address the potential groundwater pollution at Wilson. When the new regulations take effect, it will no longer apply to the site.

Mura didn’t elaborate on the specific authority the state will have to enforce those provisions under the new regulation.

“There are some very serious questions that are outstanding regarding the ability of the agency to continue to exert regulatory authority over a facility that was permitted under one chapter and is now going to be allowed to transition into a new regulatory framework where there is no permit,” FitzGerald said.

The DEP’s new coal ash regulations were referred on April 5 to the second of two legislative committees they’re required to pass before being enacted. The committee will have 30 days to review the regulations. If they don’t, the regulations will become effective May 5.

For more of WFPL’s coverage of coal ash in Kentucky, click here.

Public Service Commission Grants Delay In LG&E Rate Case Friday, Apr 7 2017 

Kentucky’s Public Service Commission has pushed back the procedural schedule of a rate case involving Louisville Gas & Electric and Kentucky Utilities.

As WFPL reported yesterday, several intervenors in the case requested either the case be dismissed or they be given more time to review documents, after LG&E submitted a revised document last week.

LG&E acknowledged it had filed incorrect information, and the intervenors, including Louisville Metro government and the Kentucky Attorney General’s Office, said they would need additional time to make changes to calculations and analyses.

In an order entered Friday, the Kentucky Public Service Commission denied the intervenors’ request to have the case dismissed but said it would grant a schedule change.

From the order:

Based on the motions and being otherwise sufficiently advised, the Commission finds that the intervenors have raised serious issues relating to the accuracy of the Utilities’ cost-of-service studies. Those studies were filed by the Utilities to support their proposed methodologies for allocating the additional revenues requested in these rate cases. The issues as raised by the intervenors are evidentiary in nature and cannot be summarily decided without the opportunity for a hearing and cross-examination of witnesses.

LG&E had opposed changing the schedule.

The hearing on the case will be held May 9, a week later than it was initially scheduled.

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