WASHINGTON, D.C. – Thousands of groundwater samples near coal ash dumps across the U.S. contain arsenic, lead, and other pollutants at levels exceeding federal thresholds for safe drinking water, according to a new online database of state monitoring results.
The potential contamination of underground drinking water supplies from leaky power plant landfills and waste ponds suggests a need for long-delayed federal regulation, according to Eric V. Schaeffer, Executive Director of the Environmental Integrity Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting public health.
On May 28, 2014, the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) launched the new Ashtracker website (www.ashtracker.org). The database contains 39,080 groundwater quality readings at 1,010 monitoring wells near 30 ash waste sites in 16 states from Florida to North Dakota. The 30 sites are a subset of the hundreds of coal ash disposal areas across the country. EIP will be progressively adding new disposal areas over the coming months. Of the currently listed groundwater monitoring wells, 828 (82 percent) have exceeded U.S. Environmental Protection Agency safe drinking water thresholds for one or more pollutants in the last four years.
“Many of these coal-ash landfills are ticking time bombs and need to be cleaned up,” said Schaeffer, former Director of Civil Enforcement at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “People have a right to know who is responsible for contaminating their groundwater, rivers, and streams.”
The groundwater monitoring wells are usually located on properties owned by power companies, and the risk to public health and the environment will depend on whether contaminants move offsite and into drinking water wells, creeks, or wetlands.
While such information is too often limited or unavailable, some coal plants have already been hit with big bills for cleaning up offsite leaks. For example, the state of Pennsylvania announced in February that FirstGeneration Energy had posted a $169 million bond to cover the cost of cleaning up a contaminated coal ash pond northwest of Pittsburgh.
Schaeffer said the large number of unsafe groundwater readings on the Ashtracker site suggests a need for stronger regulation of coal-ash landfills and ponds, which are often unlined, poorly designed, and inadequately monitored. Later this year, EPA is expected to release long-delayed new standards for the disposal of coal ash.
Ashtracker will help community groups, reporters, and policy makers analyze whether local coal plants are contaminating their underground water supplies, and whether the proposed EPA regulations are adequate. The groundwater samples near ash dumps in the Ashtracker database were collected by power companies and reported to state environmental agencies. The Environmental Integrity Project then collected this information from the state agencies by submitting requests under state “right to know” laws.
About 80 percent of the water quality violations listed in the Ashtracker database are for the most common contaminants: boron (which can cause low birth weight and reproductive disorders), arsenic (a carcinogen), cobalt (which has been linked to health effects on the heart, blood, and thyroid gland), and sulfate (which can cause diarrhea, a major health concern for infants). Here are some highlights from what is now available on Ashtracker:
• In southwest Pennsylvania, the Hatfield’s Ferry Power plant disposes of its ash waste in an unlined 40-acre landfill near Little Whitely Creek. The dump has been contaminating one of the creek’s tributaries for almost ten years, threatening the safety of private drinking water wells in the area. Seventeen percent of the water samples from monitoring wells around the landfill exceeded health standards in 2011 and 2012, including for arsenic and chromium (some forms of which are carcinogenic).
• In Florida, the Tampa Electric Company operates 11 coal ash landfills – most unlined – to handle waste generated by its Big Bend Station power plant. In 2001, Florida’s environmental agency issued a consent order citing contamination of ground and surface waters, including arsenic levels five times greater than the drinking water standard. But almost 10 years later, in October 2010, many monitoring wells near the landfills still exceeded health based standards for arsenic.
• In Kentucky, Louisville Gas and Electric maintains an ash pond next to the Ohio River to hold waste generated from its Cane Run Generating Station in Louisville. EPA and Kentucky have both classified the dam holding the liquid ash as a “high hazard” dam. Ground-water monitoring wells around the facility violated health standards about 10 percent of the time in 2011 to 2012, including for excessive amounts of arsenic, and lead (which can cause brain damage in high enough doses).
• In Cedar Rapids, Iowa, the Interstate Power & Light Company for years dumped ash from the Sixth Street Station power plant into a former limestone quarry, which is now closed and covered. A new housing development has been built near the site. And groundwater monitoring wells around the closed landfill exceeded health standards 20 percent of the time from 2010 to 2013, including for arsenic, boron, and cobalt.
Beyond the problem of polluted water leaking out of ash dumps is the related problem of poor construction and structural instability. When coal ash is stored in a liquid form (mixed with water) instead of a dry form, dams and other components of the waste ponds sometimes rupture with catastrophic results to the environment. One example of this danger was the February 2014 coal ash spill from a Duke Energy waste site into North Carolina’s Dan River. Another example was a massive spill in 2008 from the Kingston Fossil Plant into Tennessee’s Emory and Clinch Rivers.
The Environmental Integrity Project is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization established in 2002 by former EPA enforcement attorneys to advocate for more effective enforcement of environmental laws. For more information, visit the Ashtracker site at: www.ashtracker.org.