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GVEA to Clean Up Coal-ash System at Power Plant That Violated Federal Groundwater Regs


Golden Valley Electric Association will close a facility that processes coal ash produced by the Healy 1 power plant within five years, because it’s been leaking more toxic heavy metals into the area’s groundwater than federal regulations allow. Golden Valley also will come up with a plan to clean up groundwater contamination around the coal-fired power plant in Healy.

Golden Valley conceded in a report filed last spring that the system it uses to dry out ashfrom the coal-fired Healy 1 power plant has allowed more heavy metals to percolate into the groundwater than is permitted under rules issued in 2015 by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

“We had statistically significant increases in antimony, arsenic, lithium, molybdenum, and selenium,” says Golden Valley Environmental Officer Naomi Morton Knight. She says those substances entered the groundwater from ash that’s mixed with water and transported from Healy 1 in a slurry pipeline into a series of ash-settling ponds near the power plant.

Credit GVEA
Heavy equipment work over coal ash in the drying pile at Golden Valley's ash-disposal facility near the Healy 1 and 2 power plants.

“There’s very small settling ponds where the water slurry with ash taken from Unit 1 is put in the pond to settle the ash out,” Knight said Thursday.

The dried ash is then buried at the nearby Usibelli Coal Mine, where the power plant’s fuel is excavated.

Healy 1 is the only Alaska facility on a list of 67 coal-fired power plants nationwide that reported exceeding federal limits on substances from the ash contaminating groundwater. That’s according to Earthjustice, a San Francisco-based environmental-advocacy organization that issued a news release Wednesday identifying the problem at the power plants.

“We have 67 plants across more than 20 states in the U.S. (that) have admitted that there is such contamination at their sites from their coal-ash ponds or landfills that have exceeded those health-based standards which trigger the need for cleanup at the sites,” says Earthjustice senior counsel Lisa Evans. 

Evans says the rule on coal-ash groundwater contamination is among a series of regulations adopted by the EPA in the aftermath of problems at several power plant ash-disposal operations around the nation. The worst was the failure of a containment dam at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston plant 10 years ago, which unleashed more than a billion gallons of sludge that covered about 300 acres in Roane County, Tenn., and led to the deaths of  more than 30 people and the sickening of at least 300 others.

“That woke the EPA up the great threat posed by the nation’s mismanagement of the disposal of toxic coal ash,” Evans said.

Research has linked exposure to heavy metals in coal ash to cancer, nervous-system disorders, cognitive and behavioral problems, and damage to the heart, lungs, kidneys and reproductive system. Evans says that’s why the regulation of coal-ash disposal is essential.

“Right now,” she said, “Healy is using an unlined coal-ash pond. And that pond has been shown to be leaking toxic metals.”

Credit KUAC file photo
Golden Valley officials plan to treat coal ash generated by both Healy 2, left, and Healy 1 in a single facility that won't use the coal-ash settling ponds.

Evans says Golden Valley would have to clean up the contamination and install a leak-proof liner in order to continue using the ponds. Knight says GVEA officials have decided instead to discontinue use of the ponds at the 65-acre Healy 1 disposal facility, located in a remote area on the Nenana River outside Healy, near the 28-megawatt Healy 1 and 50-megawatt Healy 2 power plants.

“We would like to just close our ponds and reclaim them,” she said.

Knight says Golden Valley officials will instead use a different method of initially treating coal ash from both Healy 1 and 2 before it’s taken to Usibelli for burial. She says GVEA is working with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation on a plan to clean up the ponds. She says the utility will submit reports on the progress of that plan in February and in August. And she says Golden Valley will solicit public comments and hold public hearings before any cleanup begins no later than July 2023.

Knight says the cleanup is not expected to hike GVEA ratepayers’ monthly bills.

Tim has worked in the news business for over three decades, mainly as a newspaper reporter and editor in southern Arizona. Tim first came to Alaska with his family in 1967, and grew up in Delta Junction before emigrating to the Lower 48 in 1977 to get a college education and see the world.