Coal Waste Disposal and our tainted groundwater




Indianapolis Star

Thursday, January 27,  2000


      Newspapers around the state have recently run stories and editorials about the controversy surrounding the disposal of coal combustion wastes in orphaned and active strip mine sites in Indiana.  Anyone who consumes electrical power in Indiana should be concerned about this issue. 


      For the past several years, environmentalists and coal field activists have fought an uphill battle against Indiana utilities and coal operators over a proposed rule before the Natural Resources Commission that we consider seriously flawed. 


       All we have been asking for is for the commission and the Department of Natural Resources to listen to sweet reason.  We want the state regulatory agencies to do their jobs and require those disposing of the proposed hundreds of millions of tons of this material do so in the same manner that solid waste haulers dispose of special wastes in landfills. 


       This would include clay liners on the bottom and sides of the disposal sites and monitoring wells around the periphery of the disposal sites so as to protect the groundwater in adjacent aquifers.  We also believe the burden of proof should be placed on those disposing of these materials and that, if a heavy metal contamination of adjacent aquifers should occur, they be held responsible for financial remedies.


      Let us consider a hypothetical situation. Assume for a moment that a utility or a coal operator thought it could get away with dumping a load of this material into a settling basin in an Indianapolis water treatment plant.  After several weeks, someone might discover elevated levels of selenium, cadmium, strontium (some possibly radioactive), boron, nickel and other heavy metals in drinking water.


     If these levels were dangerous enough to threaten human health, the resulting public outcry would be incredible. 


      Rural residents living adjacent to the proposed disposal sites do not have the luxury of television and newspaper reporters interviewing them to share their feelings in the matter.  Many live far enough away from municipal water sources that it would be cost prohibitive for them to connect to them.  If their drinking water is spoiled by the corporate polluters, allowed to do so by nameless bureaucrats in the DNR, they would be forced to move from their land or haul water into cisterns on their property.


      Much of the land affected by the proposed dump sites is drained by Pigeon Creek, which inevitably enters the Ohio River at Evansville. 


     If this rule is passed, for the next decade the regulatory environment in this state will function like a magnet for literally hundreds of million of tons of this material from all over the Midwest, Indiana will once again become a dumping ground for another form of industrial refuse from adjacent states, just as it has for special wastes in landfills here in southwestern Indiana.


      Most people also do not realize the extent to which this issue is closely linked with the national trend toward utility deregulation.  Utilities, which recently have been negotiating long-term contracts with coal operators want to minimize their costs.


      Clay liners and the maintenance of monitoring wells cost money.  With their enormous political power in the state, they think they can literally bulldoze the interests of the relatively few people who live in these rural areas.  They want these costs to be minimized regardless of who is harmed in the process before the state legislature moves to open up the electrical power grid to competition. 


      There is an irreconcilable breakdown in values between proponents of the rule, powerful utilities, coal companies and those who seek to protect one of Indiana's last remaining untainted resource treasures:  fresh pure groundwater.  The one side places profits and stockholders interest before the rights of rural residents to have undamaged water wells.


      We urge the legislature to take action on this issue.  There is no reason why the protective measures adopted should not be similar to rules and laws passed in Illinois and Kentucky.


David Coker resides in Evansville and is on the board of Save Our Land and Environment, a southwestern

Indiana environmental group