By Patrick Cooley
January 22, 2023 - A recent U.S. EPA decision could mean the beginning of the end for Ohio’s largest coal-fired power plant.
The agency announced that it has denied the James M. Gavin plant in Gallia County permission to keep dumping potentially toxic coal ash into an unlined pond.
The EPA gave the facility on the banks of the Ohio River near Cheshire 135 days to find another way to dispose of the ash. If it can’t find one, the plant may eventually have to shutter. An EPA representative was not able to immediately answer questions about what consequences the Gavin plant would face if it does not comply with the ruling.
Environmentalists praised the decision, "although it is a little frustrating that we didn't have faster action," said Neil Waggoner, senior representative for the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign.
The Boston private equity firm that owns the plant has not commented on the decision, but coal supporters see the move as another phase of a long-running campaign to shut down their industry.
“Friday’s decision by the USEPA to deny a renewal permit by the Gavin Plant’s operator for fly ash disposal is just another example of the Biden Administration crusade to close all coal-fired baseload generation,” Ohio Coal Association President Mike Cope said in an emailed statement that used an alternate term for coal ash.
Coal-Fired Power Plants and Climate Change
President Joe Biden has pledged to cut the nation's carbon emissions in half by 2030, which requires a switch to renewable power. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report last summer that said carbon emissions must drop rapidly if the world is to avoid the worst effects of climate change.
Nearly everyone seems to agree that the Gavin plant is unlikely to survive in the long run thanks to a regulatory climate that is no longer hospitable to coal, and economic changes that are moving the power grid toward natural gas and renewable energy.
Coal ash regulations were finalized in the last year of the Obama Administration but went unenforced under President Donald Trump. It wasn’t until earlier this year that the Biden Administration signaled it would revoke permission for some coal plants to dump ash into unlined ponds.
“Limiting the contact between coal ash and groundwater after closure is critical to minimizing releases of contaminants into the environment and will help ensure communities near these facilities have access to safe water for drinking and recreation,” the EPA wrote in a news release announcing the decision.
The release said groundwater monitoring around the ash pond is inadequate and the Gavin plant failed to conduct an appropriate statistical analysis of contamination data.
What Will Effects Be on Power Grid, Electricity Prices if Gavin Plant Closes?
Cope said the U.S. EPA’s decision could disrupt the power grid that energizes Ohio.
“There is no coordinated effort by the Biden Administration to be certain their agencies' actions do not disrupt the grid,” he said. “We remain hopeful that the operators of Gavin will find a way to comply with the orders, that is if the U.S. EPA fairly considers alternatives, and I am not hopeful about that probability.”
The Gavin plant is responsible for roughly 11% of the power generated in Ohio. Representatives for PJM Interconnection, which oversees the grid that supplies electricity to Ohio, 12 other states and the District of Columbia, say the grid could weather the loss of the Gavin plant.
However, it is unclear how much energy prices would change if the plant went offline. PJM only calculates the cost of a closure when a plant shuts down.
Studies show that workers exposed to coal ash are more likely to be diagnosed with respiratory ailments and diseases like COPD.
The coal industry argues that coal ash has not been definitively linked to any serious health problems and industry representatives have noted that coal ash contamination was never detected in the groundwater near Cheshire.
However, the EPA noted in its decision that the monitors measuring the groundwater could miss contamination because they are too far apart. And studies conducted by environmental groups have turned up coal ash contamination.
The ash contains harmful compounds such as arsenic and cadmium, said Latonya Jackson, a researcher for the University of Cincinnati who studies environmental toxicology.
"It's in trace levels, but it's there," she said. "I would hope that it would get regulated because it does pose a threat to human health."