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Indiana groups sue EPA over coal ash landfills no longer being used

The map of inactive coal ash landfills has dots, concentrated across the East and Midwest. Several dots spread into Texas and the Mountain West of the U.S.
Courtesy of Earthjustice
A map of coal ash landfills in the U.S. that are no longer being used. Unlike coal ash ponds, the waste is put in dry pits — but activists say it still gets wet and pollutes the groundwater.

Two Indiana groups have joined a lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency for failing to protect people and the environment from toxic coal ash in landfills that are no longer being used.

The groups say these landfills shouldn’t have been exempt from stricter coal ash rules in 2015.

Coal ash contains toxic heavy metals like mercury, cadmium and arsenic which can get into the groundwater and pollute local drinking water sources.

Lisa Evans is an attorney with Earthjustice. The group is representing the Hoosier Environmental Council, the LaPorte County branch of the Indiana NAACP and others in the suit.

She said even though the ash is dry when it’s placed into these inactive coal ash landfills, it can get soaked when it rains or the water table rises — polluting the groundwater just like regular coal ash ponds.

“Those landfills didn't have to be monitored. There was no reporting requirements. They were subjected to no cleanup standards, no closure standards. And those — those hundreds of units are units that are causing groundwater contamination as we speak," Evans said.

READ MORE: Report: 'Clean closure' of coal ash ponds creates more jobs, boosts local economies

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For example, these landfills don't have to have things like caps or liners to prevent water from getting in — something now required for active coal ash ponds.

The exemption applies to all inactive coal ash landfills that stopped receiving waste before the rule was put into place in 2015. Earthjustice said that's half a billion tons of coal ash — enough to fill train cars that could stretch across the Earth two times.

Indiana has 21 inactive coal ash landfills — about half of them are at Duke Energy’s former R. Gallagher coal plant near New Albany.

“I think what differentiates us from some of these other states is that we have not had an environmental disaster yet — emphasis on yet — to spur us into a huge wake up call," said Susan Thomas of the group Just Transition Northwest Indiana.

Indiana coal ash lanfills.jpg
Courtesy of Earthjustice
Indiana has 21 inactive coal ash landfills — about half of them are at Duke Energy’s former R. Gallagher coal plant near New Albany.

Just Transition NWI wants to see coal ash used as fill on the site of the Michigan City coal plant cleaned up. Thomas said if such a disaster were to happen there, it would directly affect the largely lower-income, Black and Brown community nearby — a huge environmental injustice.

The lawsuit alleges that the EPA was supposed to review its exemption for inactive coal ash landfills four years ago, but it never did.

Evans said a court also ruled that the EPA has to regulate “legacy” coal ash ponds — coal ash mixed with water in a pond that is no longer in use. She said the agency hasn’t done that yet either, but she expects the EPA will propose a rule for legacy ponds in the next few months.

Contact reporter Rebecca at rthiele@iu.edu or follow her on Twitter at @beckythiele.

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Rebecca Thiele covers statewide environment and energy issues.