Joe Trotter says that these days, the fishing is dead in Turtle Creek Reservoir. His sporting goods store, Trotter’s Sports Center, used to be one of six sporting goods stores serving people who fished the Turtle Creek Reservoir. Today his is the only store still in business, mainly because he serves other areas, like nearby Sullivan Lake where the fishing is still good.
Turtle Creek Reservoir is actually the cooling pond for Hoosier Energy’s Merom coal plant. The plant needs over 480 million gallons of water per day to cool its equipment. To create a source of cooling water, Hoosier Energy dammed Turtle Creek in 1980, creating the 1500 acre Turtle Creek Reservoir just upstream from the Wabash River.
Hoosier Energy stocks the cooling pond with fish and until the early 1990’s it was “one of the hottest fishing spots in the Midwest, especially for bass,” Trotter said. But over the last decade, something happened to the fish population in Turtle Creek. Fishermen just weren’t catching the bass, crappie and other game fish were once abundant there. As the fishing declined, Hoosier Energy increased the amount of fish they stocked in the cooling pond from about 30,000 to 130,000 per year, but the bass and other species haven’t come back.
Today channel catfish are about all you can catch in Turtle Creek Reservoir, Hoosier Energy sponsors catfishing tournaments there. But the company may be risking people’s health by encouraging them to fish in water that contains runoff from their coal ash landfill and discharge from their coal plant.
Coal Plant Wastewater
Cooling water that is discharged from coal plants can be contaminated with selenium. Selenium is a natural element that, in high doses can deform or kill fish and birds, sometimes even wiping out species.
Because of legal advocacy by Environmental Law & Policy Center (ELPC) and other groups, the water permit for Hoosier Energy’s Merom plant now requires that the company test their wastewater for selenium, arsenic, chromium and other toxins. "These water monitoring requirements are a critical first step for safeguarding public health and holding polluters accountable," said ELPC attorney Jessica Dexter. ELPC has filed a Freedom of Information Act request for recent water testing results at Turtle Creek Reservoir.
With better technology, these problems could be avoided. Coal plants can use cooling towers that reuse water rather than continually drawing in clean water from lakes, rivers and reservoirs and sending wastewater back into waterways. ELPC and its allies are advocating for EPA to require cooling towers be used at coal plants rather than outdated “once through” cooling.
The Merom coal plant burns over 100 rail cars worth of coal per day, generating over 700,000 tons of ash per year that is disposed of in an on-site landfill. Coal ash contains selenium as well as a host of other toxic compounds and heavy metals. The stormwater runoff from Merom’s coal ash landfill is channeled directly into the Turtle Creek Reservoir. EPA water tests in 2007 found unhealthy levels of barium, chromium and lead in wells at Merom’s coal ash landfill site.
Indiana's 21 coal plants store more than 2 million tons of coal ash in ponds, more than any other state in the country according to data compiled by the Associated Press. There are currently no federal standards for the disposal of toxic coal ash. In 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed to regulate coal ash as hazardous waste. The proposed standard met with strong industry opposition and is not expected to be finalized until 2012. In the meantime, Congress is considering legislation that would make it impossible to EPA to regulate coal ash as hazardous waste.
America’s coal ash problem grabbed national attention in 2008 when a dam holding back over one billion gallons of coal ash sludge burst in Tennessee, burying over 400 acres in several feet of toxic sludge. Shortly after this disaster, the EPA inspected coal ash ponds across the county and found that coal ash ponds in Indiana are in bad shape. The EPA gave a 'poor' rating to 24 ash ponds in Indiana. 6 of those dams were considered 'high hazard' dams where failure or mis-operation will probably cause loss of human life."
Even without a catastrophe, coal ash has been creating pollution problems in Indiana for years. Fishing has been prohibited since 2007 at Gibson Lake, the cooling pond for Duke Energy’s Gibson Coal Plant located about 60 miles south of Merom. Like Turtle Creek, Gibson Lake was also a popular fishing spot until the water there was found to contain selenium levels seven times what the government considers safe for fish and wildlife. The source of the contamination was traced back to the Gibson Plant’s coal ash ponds and the plant’s wastewater. Endangered birds had to be lured away from a wetland supplied with wastewater from the Gibson plant because the eggs they laid there weren’t hatching. And Gibson’s coal ash ponds contaminated the drinking water in the nearby community of East Mount Carmel. Duke Energy paid to connect most of the residents to a different water supply.
Testing results should tell us what's actually in the water at Turtle Creek Reservoir, but what’s certain is that Indiana needs to do more to safeguard public health from the dangers of coal ash and power plant wastewater.