No Accountability in Sight for Indiana’s Coal Ash Ponds

Graphic by Annabel Driussi for ODP

by Ashira Morris, ODP Staff Writer

The state of Indiana is home to 80 pits of coal ash, the toxic byproduct of burning coal, more than any other state in the country. These pits are not lined, allowing the ash to contaminate groundwater and rivers across the state. As the Indianapolis Star reports, power companies aren’t required to clean up the dangerous ash pits or move them to dry, lined landfills where it would cause less harm. Instead, the state opts to let it stay in the ground, with an impermeable cap on top. The two bills introduced in the state’s Republican-controlled General Assembly that would require utilities to relocate the ash are unlikely to advance. 

Why This Matters: Ending the use of fossil fuels isn’t just about shutting down coal plants — it’s also about cleaning up the mess they’ve made. In Indiana, almost every coal ash pit leaches toxic metals and chemicals into the groundwater at 10-20 times the health standards, making it unsafe to drink. What’s worse, as Earthjustice reported, most of the 86 ash ponds scattered around Indiana are unlined and located next to a water source. All but three of Indiana’s coal plants have coal ash sites located in the 100-year floodplain–in a state where climate change is increasing the risk of devastating floods. 

Coal ash is highly toxic, containing carcinogens, neurotoxins, and poisons that can cause cancer, heart disease, and stroke, and can inflict permanent brain damage in children. The ponds that contain these toxins almost always leak and leach into the soil and groundwater; their very existence is a threat to human and environmental health. 

Coal ash disasters of the past: 

  • Indiana has already experienced a double coal ash spill: in 2007, 30 million gallons went into the White River from an unlined Indianapolis Power and Light pit. It was repaired but not for long — the following year, it burst again and spilled another 30 million gallons.
  • In 2008, a dike rupture spilled more than 1 billion gallons of coal ash from a Tennessee Valley Authority plant. It was the largest industrial spill in U.S. history.
  • In 2014, North Carolina’s Dan River was polluted with more than 39,000 tons of coal ash from a Duke Energy pit.

While Indiana’s plan to cap the pits without moving the ash follows the federal coal ash rule, it only prevents rain from coming in, not groundwater or flooding from soaking in. For states across the southeast, the spills in North Carolina and Virginia led to tighter regulations for how coal ash is dealt with: it must be moved out of unlined pits and into a dry, lined space. Capping isn’t an option.

Clearly the standard in the southeast is now the national standard of major utilities. It’s the safest, most defensible and most environmentally friendly option,” Frank Holleman, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center told the Indianapolis Star. “Leaving the ash in unlined impoundments is both irresponsible and in the minority. Only the worst performing utilities are attempting to do it that way these days.”

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