The safety of Dearborn County’s drinking water is the subject of a social media bout between a concerned citizen and public officials. Who really has the authority to ensure cleanup of an old power plant is conducted properly?
A company's efforts to remediate the former AEP Tanners Creek Power Plant site in Lawrenceburg are at the center of a social media outburst against local public officials. Photo by Mike Perleberg, Eagle Country 99.3.
(Lawrenceburg, Ind.) – When citizens and elected leaders successfully teamed up to defeat a business’ plans to ship out-of-state fly ash into Lawrenceburg earlier this spring, it brought the potential hazards posed by the coal combustion residual into the local spotlight.
The Indiana Department of Environmental Management’s March order denying Tanners Creek Development LLC’s request to import fly ash from two Ohio power plants to complete the filling of an ash landfill at the former American Electric Power Tanners Creek Power Plant site was met with glee by most all local citizens.
However, the worries about millions of tons worth of fly ash already buried over six decades at the site along the Ohio River have not been put to rest.
Commercial Development Company, the St. Louis-based parent company of Tanners Creek Development, purchased the site in 2016 to begin demolishing the generating station and remediating the site for potential redevelopment as a new inland river port.
Ports of Indiana last year signed an option to purchase the site. The agency continues to perform its due diligence before ultimately deciding whether to purchase the property.
In February, CDC announced that the timeline for the vertical development of the site had been shortened from 2021 to late 2019.
For local chemist Matt Miles, the faster timeline raised questions about what corners the company may be cutting.
The Northern Kentucky University graduate has taken to social media to share the worries he has about the activity at Tanners Creek after he felt local officials weren’t acting with enough urgency.
“Somebody off the street could probably come in and do a better job if they tried,” the Greendale resident tells Eagle Country 99.3.
Miles has walked parts the property - he dodged the question when asked if he had trespassed without the property owner’s permission. He has taken and shared photos and video of debris, presumably from the demolished plant, being discarded in places he believes it shouldn’t be.
IDEM has been conducting regular inspections of the ash landfill, according to reports on the agency’s virtual file cabinet, with no citations given over the course of six inspections conducted since the facility was purchased in 2016. In March, IDEM received a renewal application from Tanners Creek Development for restricted waste landfill which remains under review.
But the ash landfill makes up only a portion of the 725-acre site. The state environmental agency may not be keeping as close an eye on the rest of the property. IDEM public information officer Barry Sneed said the agency's Office of Land Quality does not typically inspect site demolition activities unless a complaint is received about solid or hazardous waste.
“IDEM’s Brownfields Program is not aware of any ‘remediation’ happening in conjunction with the demolition of the main plant building being undertaken by the current property owner,” Sneed said. “There is no direct involvement with IDEM at the main plant site at the moment because there are no reported releases in that area and there are no regulated waste units within the building.”
Prior to the power plant building being razed, all asbestos containing material was removed from the structure - a process IDEM did check in on. Inspection records show IDEM was satisfied with the December 2017 abatement performed by a northern Kentucky contractor, Environmental Demolition Group. Even following up on one citizen's complaint the prior September, inspectors found the asbestos abatement was being handled properly.
Eagle Country 99.3 submitted questions about the site cleanup to Commercial Development Company earlier this week, but has not received answers as of Friday morning.
Matt Miles took this photo of debris piled up at the power plant site.
Local officials say the cleanup is being watched closely, but IDEM must be the enforcer
Before sharing the questionable remediation practices with Eagle Country 99.3, Miles was attempting to get action from local governments and boards – each of whom insist that only IDEM has the power or jurisdiction to regulate Tanners Creek Development’s activities. Some officials met with or had discussions with Miles, while others didn't.
“This is our job. Our local officials should be monitoring it. Some talk like they want to do something, but it isn’t translating into action,” he said.
The viability of a port at the site is “as doomed as we are” if the cleanup isn’t done properly, Miles said.
But Lawrenceburg Mayor Kelly Mollaun said the city has a great relationship with IDEM, with whom it is watching what happens at the site.
Local officials aren’t denying there is harmful material at the plant property. After all, a coal-fired power plant operated there from the 1950s until 2015, the same year the U.S. EPA first began ordering states to regulate the handling of fly ash under the final CCR disposal rule. But the manner in which that material is dealt with is the responsibility of the company, and for IDEM to ensure compliance.
“There has not been one ounce of any other material dumped on that site that wasn’t already there with AEP,” Mollaun said.
The mayor takes issue with any allegation that his administration is looking the other way and allowing the prospects of a port – a potential economic boon for the city, county, and region – to take precedent over public health.
“I know I’m sort of the point guy locally, so to speak. I get that and I’m okay with that, but I am never going to do anything to ever jeopardize anybody’s health in this community. My family lives here. They drink the same water. That’s the part that I can’t get people to understand,” Mollaun shares.
In his own defense, the mayor points to the recent example of his administration’s handling of the March out-of-state fly ash importation episode. Realizing they had a common interest, the administration and citizens’ combined efforts were successful in influencing IDEM to deny Tanners Creek Development’s request.
“If there is a problem, then let’s fix it. Don’t just make accusations and unfounded criticizations of the people who can’t do anything about it,” Mollaun said.
As far as the allegation that the success of the port is being put ahead of the environment, the mayor said Ports of Indiana wouldn’t be conducting its own testing and due diligence at the former power plant site before it makes a decision on establishing a port there. Mollaun said state officials have been willing to hear his concerns about environmental and traffic impacts of a port.
Like the mayor, Dearborn County Commissioners say they are aware of the concerns that have been raised by Miles. The Board of Commissioners also defer to IDEM.
“This authority is granted by the State of Indiana and by the EPA. If anything nefarious were taking place at the site, IDEM has the ability to issue fines and order that further work be discontinued,” county attorney Andrew Baudendistel said in a statement.
“Because the authority is vested in IDEM, and not at the local level, it is questionable we would be able to do anything at the site without going through IDEM ourselves.”
The county commissioners urge anyone with concerns about the ongoing work at the AEP site to file a complaint directly with IDEM.
Baudendistel is also the attorney for the Southeastern Indiana Regional Port Authority. In a statement shared with Eagle Country 99.3, he said SIRPA has no control of what happens on the private property. SIRPA members have also asked Miles and others with complaints about Tanners Creek Development's practices to contact IDEM directly.
"Based on the inspections conducted by local agencies as well as state agencies, it would appear that the evidence does not support the accusations being made by this citizen," stated a letter from SIRPA signed by members Mollaun, Dearborn County Commissioner Shane McHenry, and port authority attorney Baudendistel.
A public town hall meeting to discuss the environmental cleanup has been scheduled in Lawrenceburg. It will take place Tuesday, June 5 starting at 7:00 p.m. at Ivy Tech Community College’s riverfront campus on Walnut Street.
Officials from Tanners Creek Development, the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, the Southeastern Indiana Regional Port Authority, Dearborn County, and cities of Lawrenceburg, Aurora, and Greendale are expected to be present.
Watchdogs say water supply is safe for now
The largest concern voiced by citizens regarding the power plant site is its threat to groundwater, which flows northwest from the Ohio River, beneath the ash landfill and pond, then toward drinking water well fields serving local communities, according to a potentiometric map.
Miles is adamant that it is only a matter of time before contaminants reach the groundwater supply. He claims contamination of the water could occur in as short as five years.
Decades of testing on the groundwater in the aquifer surrounding the ash retirement areas have never revealed unsafe levels of contaminants, according to officials with the two utilities owning the wells - Aurora Utilities and Lawrenceburg-Manchester-Sparta Conservancy District. The water is regularly tested by both utilities regularly for contaminants ranging from bacteria to cancer causing agents.
“None of the levels have been alarming,” said LMS Conservancy superintendent Hershell Gossett, adding the utility arranges for its own testing.
Aurora Utilities superintendent Randy Turner said he has compared test results over 20 years. The level of contaminants in water sampled from the well fields is comparable to the time before an ash landfill was built. He does say boron's presence in the water has increased slightly in the past five years, but Indiana does not set a maximum acceptable level for that element.
Tanners Creek Development uses EnviroAnalytics Group, another CDC affiliate of environmental engineers, to assess the groundwater pulled from monitoring wells around the fly ash pits twice a year. Those results are shared with IDEM.
Under an agreement dating back to the ash landfill's establishment in the 1970s, American Electric Power also semiannually tests the aquifer for contaminants to share with Aurora Utilities and LMS Conservancy, according to Turner.
Since the fly ash issue surfaced in March, Lawrenceburg Municipal Utilities has also conducted its own testing of groundwater at Aurora and LMS wells, according to Andrew Lyons, director of LMU's water department.
Miles tells TV station Dearborn County could become Flint, Michigan
In an interview with Fox 19 on Wednesday, Miles made the claim that Dearborn County would become the next Flint, Michigan.
“We will have to wait for redevelopment and drink bottled water out of vans like in Flint, Michigan,” Miles said in the television interview.
The Flint water crisis, one of the worst water supply disasters in American history, has vastly different circumstances than what is currently being discussed in Lawrenceburg. The Flint fiasco started in 2014 when the source for the city's drinking water was changed, but officials failed to apply corrosion inhibitors in the water, which allowed lead from deteriorating pipes to leach into the water supply.
Until the Flint claim was made, Lawrenceburg officials did not publicly respond to Miles' continued lambasting on social media. But, Lawrenceburg city attorney Del Weldon spoke with Eagle Country 99.3 Thursday to issue a retort tot he Flint remark.
"If you want to incite a riot, then you say 'Flint, Michigan.' If you want to cause the most panic with no basis, then that's what you say. That's what he's about from what I can gather," Weldon said.
With so frequent testing by so many different entities - utilities, companies, municipalities - it seems unlikely that unsafe levels of any groundwater contaminants could ever go ignored, undetected, and mitigated before becoming a major public health concern.
Weldon notes that if Miles possesses credible information about groundwater contamination, the city wants to know about that and follow up on it.
"I want to take it to IDEM. We will lean on CDC and ELT, absolutely. We've done it before (with the March fly ash importation denial) and we'll do it again," said Weldon. "That could have cost the port right there and we didn't think twice about challenging it. That cost (CDC) $8 million that they had a contract for."
Is it about safe water or getting paid?
With his strong rhetoric against so many local leaders who say in unison they have no authority over the site, officials and onlookers have questioned Miles' motivations.
Eagle Country 99.3 obtained from Miles a May 8 email he sent to the Southeastern Indiana Regional Port Authority's attorneys. In it, Miles said he has the necessary background to consult on the site remediation effort for SIRPA, but needs to be compensated "to solve this without struggling to pay my own bills."
He requested from SIRPA, "$2500/mo from the beginning of work, scaled to the accurate percentage of full-time work performed each month, payable monthly, starting in March. Agreeing to continued nondisclosure of sensitive information. Work including consulting, researching, investigating, advising, educating, and coordinating testing & counseling on potential impacts of different courses of action, reportable directly to a SIRPA subcommittee of your selection, for as long as the committee feels my involvement is still providing a benefit. Basically – what I’ve already been doing. Third party expenses paid directly by whichever funding source (I don’t have the liquidity to float those)."
Miles wrote that his offer "makes it virtually impossible to say anything but yes." He later states the true billing for the work would be $10,000 per month, but he tries to assure the attorneys that amount would be paid by "liable third parties."
As the attorneys and Miles further exchanged emails, Miles began to attempt to intimidate SIRPA into hiring him.
"I made a very clear example of Mayor Mollaun when he chose to ignore this information. Should I also include the rest of you in my interview with the Cincinnati news?" he posed in a one-line reply on May 22.
"This is consistent with what we have seen from him so far," said Weldon. "Looks like he is attempting to create hysteria to drum up business for his consulting firm."
“Fugitive dust” from fly ash landfill
A dust cloud emerged from the area of the ash landfill at the Tanners Creek Power Plant site on April 12. Photo by Lisa Barker.
Although IDEM denied Tanners Creek Development’s request to use out-of-state fly ash as fill material, there is still nearly 14 million tons of coal combustion residuals in the existing ash landfill and ponds in Lawrenceburg.
The ash piled up over more than six decades of operation of the power plant, which opened in 1951.
On April 12, heavy dust from those landfills was observed blowing into commercial areas along U.S. 50. Such an occurrence would appear to be a violation of Tanners Creek Development’s ash landfill permit from IDEM. The permit cites an Indiana statute prohibiting certain levels of fugitive dust crossing property lines past the source.
Upon hearing of the dust cloud, Mayor Mollaun visited the ash landfill the same day, spoke with Tanners Creek Development officials, called executives with Commercial Development Company, and quickly notified IDEM.
State inspectors came to investigate. A representative for the company explained to inspectors that a truck for watering the fly ash on the surface of the uncapped landfill had broken down, but a rental water truck was brought in to resume the dust suppression watering.
IDEM ordered the company to come up with a written plan to prevent more fugitive dust from going airborne.
The most recent IDEM inspection of the fly ash landfill was conducted on May 10. According to a May 18th letter to Tanners Creek Development, no violations were observed.
An intermediate cover on the ash landfill in place since April 2017 appeared to be in good shape, inspectors noted. Tanners Creek Development continues to place a dust suppressant on the working face, the state inspectors noted.
Aside from missing signatures from daily logs, no violations were uncovered in previous inspections of the ash landfill since Tanners Creek Development assumed the landfill permit from AEP in January 2017.
Eventually, a 30-inch layer of soil will be used to cap the landfill, according to communications between the company and IDEM.