Protecting The Environment = Protecting People: Dangers of Coal Ash Ponds

Indiana has more coal ash ponds than any other state in the country – 84 of them. Coal ash is the residue left after coal is burned in electric generating plants or industrial boilers. It contains trace elements that are toxic – things like arsenic, selenium, lead, mercury and chromium. When the coal ash is stored in an unlined pond, it can leach into the groundwater. The EPA says that a person whose drinking water is contaminated with arsenic can have a risk of cancer that is 2,000 times greater than the agency’s goal. Other potential health problems from contaminated groundwater are heart damage, respiratory distress, kidney disease, gastrointestinal illnesses, reproductive problems, and nervous system damage.

The Hoosier Environmental Council has just released a report titled “Our Waters at Risk.” The Indianapolis Power & Light’s Harding Street site has eight unlined ash ponds located above an aquifer. We’ll no doubt be hearing more about this in the near future. Also in the recent news is the report that chemical spills from a Conrail Rail Yard in Elkhart, Indiana, have just landed that site to the federal government’s Superfund priority cleanup list.

We thought this was a good time to get some information from Bert Louthian, a personal injury lawyer in Columbia, South Carolina, about his experience representing local folks harmed by environmental hazards.


Q. Why are you, as a personal injury lawyer, concerned about environmental law?

A. Every person has the right to live in an environment that is free of poisons, carcinogens and other harmful chemicals. By the time it becomes common knowledge that a company has polluted a community’s drinking water, the damage may have been done. They shouldn’t be able to get away with that.

Q. But aren’t there laws that regulate emissions and dumping?

A. Yes, lots of them, both federal and state. But they’re frequently ignored by corporate entities, or even individuals, who would rather take a chance on getting caught and paying a fine than paying to have measures in place that would prevent pollution in the first place. It’s all about profit.

Q. Can you tell us about a local situation where citizens may have been harmed by this form of corporate greed?

A. About 100 residents of one community, Cannons Campground, have filed a federal lawsuit against Hoechst Celanese alleging that the polyester manufacturing plant disposed of dangerous chemicals that have harmed them through their drinking water. Cleanup on that site has been going on since about 1980 and will go on for decades more.

Q. So that situation involves groundwater pollution. Is air pollution a problem there in South Carolina?

A. Just recently our local news has included stories about a troubling situation in Myrtle Beach. It’s troubling because so many people vacation in the area and they walk right by this illegal dump without even knowing it’s a hazard. A company doing demolition work on some old motels on the Grand Strand piled up the materials in a nearby parking lot. Problem is, they contain asbestos, a substance well known to be hazardous if the particles are breathed into the lungs. There it is, floating on the sea breezes! And this isn’t even the first time this particular operator has shown disregard for the law. I hope the Department of Health and Environmental Control cracks down in a meaningful way this time.

Q. So what government agencies are there to protect the public’s interest in a healthy environment?

A. On the federal level, of course, you have the EPA, the Environmental Protection Agency. OSHA helps keep workers safe from toxic substances. The Fish and Wildlife Service and the Army Corps of Engineers also can get involved in tracking violators. Some authority is delegated to the states. For example, the states have primary oversight and enforcement responsibility for public water systems. In South Carolina, we have the DHEC and the Department of Natural Resources.

Q. So that would be like Indiana’s Department of Environmental Management, Department of Natural Resources and Department of Public Health?
A. Exactly. Each state’s government has at least one division whose role is to protect the environment.

Q. Is there a role for the private citizen to play in making sure our land and air and water are safe and will be so for future generations?

A. Absolutely. Employees who suspect their companies are violating environmental regulations are protected by whistleblower laws. Concerned citizens can come together to put pressure on government regulators to investigate and clean up polluted areas. Sometimes news organizations can shine the light of day on a dangerous situation. That’s what happened in the Celanese case – the Spartanburg TV station did a five-part investigative series about the unusually high incidence of cancer in a small area. And we, as lawyers, can help to bring about needed change that will last for decades to come.


Sometimes an accident will have but one victim. Most of the time, however, numerous people are affected, including family members who are called upon to care for or support the injured person, or employers who must find a way to get the work done while the injured worker is recuperating. At times, hundreds, or even thousands, of people are harmed by a defective product or dangerous drug . . . or irresponsible business practice. Mike Stephenson is an experienced class action lawyer. For a confidential discussion about your concerns, contact Mike at 1-317-825-5200.