Power plant farm polluting water? PacifiCorp says no

by Rick Sherman, originally posted on April 7, 2016


PacifiCorp says a coalition of environmental groups that filed a lawsuit alleging the Huntington Power Plant has violated the Clean Water Act, “have a history of opposing the use of coal,” and the action was anticipated by the company. The groups contend the power plant has been in violation for decades by using a fake farm to improperly dispose of polluted water.

Heal Utah and the Sierra Club claim the violations involve the use of water contaminated by coal fly ash and other pollutants to irrigate the company’s research farm. The practice was billed as an innovative disposal method when the power plant went into operation more than 40 years ago. The groups claim contaminated water applied to the farm fields could leach into ground water and surface water could drain into Huntington Creek.

In a news release, PacifiCorp said the company will refute the allegations, noting it has dealt for many years with threats and lawsuits by Sierra Club and HEAL Utah, which are on record as working to immediately stop the use of coal to generate electricity. It went on to say recent publicity tactics by these groups are particularly objectionable in how they selectively use data to make misleading and, in some cases, false claims.

Unsupported by facts

PacifiCorp asserted that many of the conclusions the plaintiffs claim are not supported by the facts. Spokesman Dave Eskelsen told the Sun Advocate, “The claims are largely unfounded and the conclusions are not warranted in regard to how PacifiCorp handles storm water and plant water in its agricultural operation.”

According to the Statement of Basis (made by the company) for renewal of a ground water permit with the Utah Department of Environmental Quality in 2011, the Huntington Research Farm consists of 255 acres of farmland located southeast of the power plant.

Controlled irrigation to avoid runoff

Wastewater is stored in a clay-lined evaporation pond throughout the year and is used to irrigate the Research Pond from April through November. Irrigation water is applied at a rate to minimize surface water runoff and infiltration into groundwater.

The statement goes on to say the bedrock at the plant site is Mancos Shale, which contains large amounts of soluble salts that leach into ground and surface water. Precipitation falling on the site dissolves more soluble minerals from the Mancos Shale the longer it has been in contact with the formation. As a result groundwater quality varies considerably making it difficult or impossible to distinguish between naturally-occurring changes in water quality from changes due to activities and facilities related to the power plant.

Ground water in the alluvial aquifer under the Research Farm is of limited extent and generally poor quality, except in wells adjacent to Huntington Creek. Monitoring data since the late 1970s shows that land applications of wastewater has not significantly affected ground water quality. A new set of ground water monitor wells was installed in 1997 and has been sampled semi-annually since then. By design protection levels are a fraction of the ground water quality standard to provide an early warning of impending ground water contamination and if necessary, implement corrective actions.

Surface water monitored

To evaluate whether PacifiCorp’s activities are affecting water quality in Huntington Creek, surface water is sampled in Huntington Creek above and below PacifiCorp’s facilities. Surface water quality standards must be met at the downstream monitoring point.

Eskelsen said, “These groups probably don’t understand that there has been research conducted at those farms by Utah State University in the utilization of processed water in this way. The irrigation process is closely monitored so the application of water is completely used.”

“We are not in violation of any laws under our federal and state permits,” he concluded.

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