August 15, 2012

Ashes to gases

LG&E racks up more coal ash violations as it seeks to switch Cane Run Road plant to natural gas

For the frustrated residents of Cane Run Road living in the shadow of Louisville Gas & Electric’s coal-fired power plant, events seem to be playing out like a bad tune on a broken record.

Neighbors across the street from the plant’s coal ash landfill take photos and video of ash clouds leaving the company’s property, sending them to the Metro Air Pollution Control District (APCD), who then slap LG&E with violations and a fine. After denial of wrongdoing, LG&E promises to correct the problem, yet the ash continues to blow over onto homes.

For Kathy Little — who lives across from the plant and has battled with LG&E over the issue for years — the situation is unacceptable.

“That’s (LG&E’s) cost of doing business,” Little says. “They hope they don’t get caught, but when they do, they put on the brakes and try to prolong the process, pay the small fine, but ultimately do not solve the problem.”

APCD first gave LG&E a notice of violation for their fly ash emissions last fall, fining the company $26,000. LG&E appealed, eventually settling with APCD last April, paying slightly less than that amount and agreeing to implement a compliance plan to decrease emissions.

But the ash clouds pluming out of the landfill did not stop, as Little and neighbor Greg Walker continued to collect video after video of violations. Last month, the APCD issued another notice of violation to LG&E with $24,000 in fines, citing video and additional samples from properties across the street testing positive for fly ash. This past weekend, Little posted more video of ash clouds from the last two months.

“They’ve done absolutely nothing different,” Little says. “They continue to release fly ash to this day, if not during the day, then at night when we can’t see it. Either way, we get slammed.”

While Little and others express frustration with LG&E — as well as local, state and federal regulators for not holding them accountable — some degree of relief appears to be a few years down the road.

At 5 p.m. today — Wednesday, Aug. 15 — the APCD will hold a public hearing in Memorial Auditorium for what might be LG&E’s final hurdle before they can begin construction of a new power plant that runs on burning natural gas, which they hope to complete before 2016. LG&E first announced their plans last year, saying this would be more cost efficient for the company and rate payers than retrograding its coal-fired plants to meet EPA pollution standards. This May, Kentucky’s Public Service Commission approved the company’s plan.

Citizens at the hearing will have an opportunity to speak about the proposal, after which APCD’s chief of engineering could allow the construction permit to go forward. Last week, LG&E approved a $583 million contract for two companies to construct the natural gas-fueled plant.

For Little — who recently received a national award from the Sierra Club for her efforts fighting coal ash — a switch to natural gas is not ideal. Though she would much prefer LG&E invest in renewable energy, and cites the myriad of problems around fracking — the process of injecting fluid into the ground at high pressure to break up rock formations and release natural gas — Little says a gas-fired plant would be a vast improvement upon their current situation.

“It’s a fossil fuel, and fracking is terrible,” Little says. “But our own personal situation out here is that there’s a lot of toxic coal ash that we’re being hit with, and it would be better than what we have now. Our kids are suffering, and they absolutely should not have to breathe these heavy metal particulates.”

Even if LG&E begins construction of a new plant this fall, that still means at least three more years of coal ash, not to mention the nearly mile-long mountain of ash left behind.

Little is frustrated with APCD’s inability to hold LG&E accountable for their violations and hopes that if the EPA or state government doesn’t step in, Metro government will.

“I think that the only true way to force LG&E to change the way they operate are new city ordinances, because right now there’s not a whole lot of teeth in what they get punished with,” Little says. “It’s better than nothing, but there needs to be more.”

Metro Councilwoman Attica Woodson Scott, who represents District 1, where the plant is located, tells LEO that APCD is limited in power, but that Metro government should examine new strategies to improve enforcement in partnership with state government.

“We are spending millions of dollars in taxpayer money with LG&E,” Scott says. “So the least we can do is be the moral authority on this issue, which our neighbors expect from people serving in positions of political privilege.”

APCD spokesman Tom Nord says they are discussing a settlement with LG&E for violations handed down last month. While Nord admits the process can be slow, and a $24,000 fine is not a lot of money for a billion dollar corporation, the ultimate goal is to work with LG&E so they can solve the problem.

“It’s not a dream scenario to have this drag out, but we want to give LG&E a chance to make its case and give them a chance to fix this problem,” Nord says. “I really think they are trying.”

Though their April settlement required LG&E to implement a compliance plan, Nord concedes the problem continues.

“I think the fact that we’ve issued more notices of violation indicates that we feel like there is more work to be done here,” Nord says.

While LG&E admitted no wrongdoing in their April settlement — and denies that coal ash is harmful to human health — spokesman Brian Phillips says they have made substantial upgrades to their dust control measures.

In a written response to LEO, Phillips says, “Our plant people do a good job controlling dust at the plant site and work to be very responsive on any concerns raised by our neighbors.” 

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