How Indy's coal ash ponds can pollute neighborhood wells 

What's in the water?

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Tucked away off of highway 37 lies the small neighborhood of sunshine gardens.

Home to approximately 200 dwellings, the folks in this neighborhood seem to lead a fairly simple life — there are even a few farms where animals graze in muddy pastures.

There are one or two run down homes that look abandoned, but there are also homes that are well cared for. It's a working-class neighborhood with narrow roads, surrounded by truck stops, the 465 Interstate and the White River. The view as one gazes up is filled with smoke and mountains of an unidentified aggregate overlook the houses off of Thompson Road. An Indianapolis Power & Light Company (IPL) plant lies just north of the Sunshine Gardens neighborhood on Harding Street. Until recently, that plant burned coal — and the site includes eight coal ash lagoons that have been dug into the ground.

"When we say 'coal ash pond' or 'lagoon,' we are not fully informing people about the dangers," says Indiana's "Beyond Coal" Campaign Representative for the Sierra Club, Jodi Perras. "These are open pits and dumps where power plants dump millions of pounds of toxic materials every year. Most have no lining to separate the toxic materials from the groundwater below."

According to Perras, the nation's coal plants produce 140 million tons of coal ash pollution annually. The toxic byproduct that is left over after the coal is burned and dumped in the backyards of power plants across the nation into open pits and lagoons.

Indiana has more coal ash pits than any other state.

"Because of lax oversight and minimal regulation in the past, Indiana has recorded 10 known instances of groundwater contamination from leaking coal ash lagoons, and three spills of coal ash sludge into Indiana waterways," Perras says.

The Harding Street plant makes 11 cases in Indiana to date.

click to enlarge ERNIE MILLS
  • Ernie Mills

Lagoons without liners

Seven of the eight Harding Street lagoons have no liners at all. The soil in the area is all sand and gravel, which means that the groundwater and White River water freely mix back and forth, allowing pollution to spread.

As for the one lagoon with the liner? According to Tim Maloney, the senior policy director for the Hoosier Environmental Council, it's lined with clay, which isn't considered the best technology. (It's too easily cracked by weather changes or seismic activity.) Maloney contends that a composite liner would be the better option because it's made of two parts: heavy plastic and compacted soil.

The lagoons are sitting directly on top of the aquifer that runs through all of the water of the White River. The aquifer extends south into the Sunshine Gardens neighborhood's well water, which goes into that same aquifer that the lagoons are on.

RELATED: Harding St. plant stops burning coal

Nearby groundwater is also a source of drinking water for the entire city. According to Perras, the Citizens Water wellfields are only a few miles from the ash ponds. A large flood could wash coal ash pollutants into surrounding neighborhoods and the wellfield protection area, which is designed to protect groundwater that supplies drinking water throughout the city.

"It's not only going to affect our little neighborhood, but (it has) the potential to affect a lot of people if it gets into that aquifer," says Stella Harper, one of the neighbors in Sunshine Gardens.

Harper has been a resident of Sunshine Gardens for 58 years. But it wasn't until just last year when the Sierra Club approached the neighborhood that she realized her water supply could be in danger.

"What kind of effects will it have? What diseases can it bring on? It seems that every time you turn around, somebody has cancer," Harper said. "Do I know that it could be a factor in it? No. But it makes you wonder ... Who wants to take a chance with it?"

According to Harper, some of the people in the neighborhood have had their wells tested and found high levels of boron.

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"You have to keep the stuff away from water"

Maloney explains the process: When coal ash comes into contact with water, the ash leaches out dangerous levels of toxic substances, which are being found in the drinking water in that area of town.

"It's not really rocket science what you have to do here," Maloney says. "You have to keep the stuff away from water."

"The safety and drinking water of Indianapolis families is threatened by this irresponsible coal ash dumping, and we have called on local and state officials to ensure that Indianapolis residents are protected from a Dan River-like disaster," Perras adds. (The Dan River was contaminated by a coal ash spill from a closed Duke Energy plant in North Carolina in 2014.)

According to Harper, she and 95 percent of the neighborhood drink strictly just bottled water.

"We don't even give the water to our animals," Harper says.

Perras says that coal ash contains mercury, lead, arsenic, and other contaminants that can endanger the health of developing children. Some of the public health hazards include increased risk of cancer, learning disabilities, neurological disorders, birth defects, reproductive failure, asthma, and other illnesses.

"Living near a wet coal ash storage pond is significantly more dangerous than smoking a pack of cigarettes a day, according to a risk assessment done by the EPA," Perras said. "In fact, people living within one mile of unlined coal ash ponds can have a one in 50 risk of cancer — more than 2,000 times higher than what the EPA considers acceptable."

Back in the '80s there were concerns about the industrial contaminants getting into the groundwater. The Marion County Health Department put in place an ordinance that required lagoon operators to monitor the groundwater in their facilities. IPL installed wells, which allowed them to take water samples that could be sent to a lab for tests. No problems with volatile organics were found.

But while this was happening, the Health Department sent all the lagoon owners a questionnaire about their sampling and IPL reported back that they were finding some high levels of arsenic, boron, mercury and other substances that were well above the background levels and the mercury and arsenic levels were well above the level of the natural drinking water standards.

Those substances also happen to be very commonly found in coal ash.

"Historically, with IPL's own information, there was evidence of contamination underneath their lagoons," Maloney said.

According to Perras, there's no knowledge of any testing that was done after the mid-1980s on the groundwater under the ash ponds.

In 2014, the Health Department was doing routine water sampling in Sunshine Gardens — testing for bacteria and other common pollutants. HEC and Sierra Club asked them to start testing for coal ash contaminants, including boron (one of the most common indicators) in addition to the department's checks for E. coli and the like. The testing from those households in Sunshine Gardens that granted permission showed boron levels well above the "normal" background levels found elsewhere in Marion County. An unnatural source of boron was getting into the wells and into people's drinking water, information that was handed to the Indiana Department of Environmental Management's (IDEM) attention.

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The warning in the quarry

As Perras notes, there's a Hanson Aggregates quarry that mines sand and gravel just south of the coal ash ponds, between the plant and Sunshine Gardens. In order to place men and equipment in the quarry, the quarry owner has to pump groundwater out of the quarry and into the White River. Sierra Club and HEC asked IDEM to test the water coming out of the quarry, because it was likely to show contamination from coal ash.

IDEM tested for boron and found 4,250 parts per million coming out of the quarry pump, according to Perras.

"This is a clear sign that there's highly contaminated groundwater under the coal ash ponds," Perras said.

The Health Department also tested the White River upstream and downstream of the Harding Street plant and found elevated levels of boron in the river downstream from the coal ash dumps.

HEC then brought in an independent geologist who looked at all the Health Department's samples — and his findings confirmed the strong suspicion that the contamination is coming from the coal ash lagoons.

"What we don't have yet is additional sampling between the quarries and the neighborhood that would provide the definitive proof that the contamination is moving from point A to point B," Maloney says.

HEC has been asking the Health Department and the state environmental officials to require additional testing so it can be known for sure if contamination is happening and if it is then they can begin working to fix it.

"While the contaminants in Sunshine Gardens are not above the accepted health levels for those contaminants, it's a clear warning sign that there's a problem there and you don't want people drinking that or bathing in that," Maloney said. "You mine coal, and you create problems. You burn coal, and you create problems."

In a press release from Feb. 25, 2016 from the Sierra Club, "Indianapolis Power & Light (IPL) has ended the burning of coal at the Harding Street coal-fired power plant, putting an end to decades of dangerous coal pollution in Marion County and guaranteeing cleaner air for Indianapolis residents."

While this is great news in regards to cleaner air in the area, it's also raised the question of how IPL plans to close this plant.

According to Maloney, although the processes of burning and mining coal have gotten a lot of attention, the third aspect — disposal of waste by-products — has seen little light.

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How to close a coal ash pond

Maloney says that there are three ways to close a coal ash pond. Option one: Clean closure, which, according to both Maloney and Perras, is the best solution. Clean closure involves digging up the ash and transporting it to a landfill or facility that is engineered to accept such waste and has appropriate liners and is therefore less of an environmental hazard.

Option two: closure in place, or simply leaving the ash with an impermeable cap after pumping all of the water out. Option three: leave the ponds "as is" but with the addition of a system that prevents any contamination to move off-site, like a slurry wall.

"They are going to be converting to gas," Harper says. "But that's not going to take care of the problem of the coal ash lagoons that are there now."

If IPL chooses to just cap these lagoons, the issue of water contamination won't be fully solved. According to Perras, underneath the surface of the lagoons, the water will continue to rise and fall, bringing forth a "tea bag effect," meaning the water will re-saturate the ash, continuing to put more contamination into the river and groundwater in the area.

"We don't want to compound that by just leaving them in place and just saying that it's taken care of," Maloney says.

"That cycle will never be broken unless IPL takes the coal ash out of our waterway and puts it in a dry landfill," Perras adds.

It wasn't until a year ago that the federal government had established rules on how to dispose of coal ash. In fact, the national and state standards for landfills for neighborhood trash are stronger than the regulations for coal ash and coal ash disposal.

Despite the switch to natural gas, IPL's closure plan for the coal ash ponds is still uncertain.

"It's important that the community calls on IPL to do the right thing and move the ash away from the river and groundwater and prevent pollution from spreading any further than it already has," Perras insists.

According to Perras, the community will have the chance to voice their opinions. IPL has promised to have a public meeting with the neighbors of Sunshine Gardens, Sierra Club, and HEC, as well as anyone in the community, where they will discuss the options. From there, IPL will present its plan to IDEM which will have the authority to either accept or reject their closure proposal.

The "right" thing to do seems obvious: Excavate the ponds and make the water clean again. So why does IPL seem hesitant to do the "right" thing? Why continue a hazardous cycle?

"They typically want to do the lowest costing thing that they can get away with. But to me, that's shortsighted," Perras said. "Just do it right the first time."

According to Perras, if IPL just caps these lagoons, the cycle will continue and then 10, 20, or 30 years down the line, the issue will need to be addressed — again.

Perras also said that the federal rule doesn't actually require them to excavate the lagoons. But if they choose to just cap them, it does require them to put in ground water monitoring after the official closure. If there is contamination found at some later date, IPL will have to deal with it

"Our idea is [to] be proactive. There is contamination. We know it already from the sample from the quarry," Perras said. "Get that ash out of the water and keep the ground water contamination on your side so it doesn't spread to our drinking water supply."

In 2010 there were 26 coal plants in Indiana alone. As of now, Indiana is down to 13. While it's reassuring to see that number cut in half, one can't help but wonder:

What is in the water?

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Another case: PINES, INDIANA

The Sunshine Gardens neighborhood isn't the only neighborhood in Indiana to suffer from groundwater contamination. The Pines neighborhood in Northwest Indiana lies near the Dunes National Lakeshore in Porter County. Pines is home to approximately 800 people — and groundwater contamination thanks to the toxins in coal ash.

In a 2004 article from The Times of Northwest Indiana ("Pines residents fight for safe water"), Brendan O'Shaughnessy writes that "The water looked like iced tea and smelled like rotten eggs."

According to O'Shaughnessy, the Northern Indiana Public Service Co. (NIPSCO) had been disposing of fly ash in a nearby landfill for the past two decades, meaning that the residents of Pines had been drinking contaminated water for over a decade.

Some of the neighbors were beginning to question if their children's disabilities had been caused by the water expectant mothers drank while pregnant. High levels of boron, arsenic, mercury, etc. have been know to cause birth defects, cancer, and other harmful diseases.

The Pines neighborhood was even considered as a Superfund site, under the purview of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA), a U.S. federal law that mandates cleanup for sites contaminated by toxic and hazardous materials.

The project to bring clean water back into the Pines neighborhood cost approximately $4 million, which NIPSCO paid for after entering an agreement with the EPA where they also agreed to pay for the neighborhood's bottled water, according to O'Shaughnessy.

In the article, Brian Wright, coal policy director for the Hoosier Environmental Council, said that the officials in Indiana had yet to recognize any of the health concerns and risks brought on by coal waste. O'Shaughnessy writes that "While neighboring states have created tough standards for disposing of fly ash, Indiana still doesn't require waterproof liners for these landfills." State officials labeled the Pines neighborhood incident as "an isolated incident," which is simply not the case.


According to WTIU, in most cases, companies are supposed to get a permit through the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) when they're wanting to build a coal ash pond on their property. However, this rarely happens.

"Some of the dams in the state and the ash ponds have gone through our permit process. I would say the majority of them have not," said Kenneth Smith, the Water Division assistant director of DNR. "Some are inspected that we had been aware of through going through our permit process. There are likely others out there that should've gone through the process but didn't."

DNR hasn't taken action against those who haven't followed the permit process because they say that the coal ash ponds don't pose a high risk of a loss of life like some dams and levees.

(NOTE: The piles of aggregate north of 465 were mis-identified as coal ash in an earlier version of this story.)

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