A new report by the Environmental Integrity Project documents that 49 coal-fired power plants have contaminated groundwater at 116 coal ash disposal sites in the United States.
The data, which was released by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in response to a Freedom of Information Act request, revealed 28 previously unknown contamination sites in Iowa, Colorado, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, and West Virginia.
Coal power pollution stored in ponds and landfills
Coal-fired electric power plants generate approximately 140 million tons of leftover ash every year, which they store in ponds, landfills, and abandoned mines around the United States. To date, there are no federal regulations on the disposal of ash.
Activists living near power plants and environmental advocates have asked EPA to classify the ash –which can contain arsenic, manganese, boron, selenium, and cadmium – as a hazardous material and to regulate its disposal. A massive coal ash spill at Tennessee Valley Authority site in 2008 briefly focused national attention to the problem, but EPA is yet to act, so communities live in fear of similar accidents or from groundwater contamination as disposal sites leak slowly.
According to the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, “Living near a wet coal ash storage pond is significantly more dangerous than smoking a pack of cigarettes a day, according to a risk assessment done by EPA. The toxins found in coal ash have been linked to organ disease, cancer, respiratory illness, neurological damage and developmental problems. People living within 1 mile (1.6km) of unlined coal ash ponds can have a 1 in 50 risk of cancer – that’s more than 2,000 times higher than what EPA considers acceptable.”
Previously unknown coal ash water contamination sites
For 28 of the disposal sites, groundwater contamination had never been publicly revealed.
“Some of these plants were under the radar, and had never been identified before by EPA or in our earlier reports on ash ponds and landfill,” explained Environmental Integrity Project Director Eric Schaeffer in a press release.
Another 42 of the 91 power plants surveyed by EPA disclosed no data, reporting that water monitoring data was unavailable, refusing on the grounds that monitoring data is proprietary information, or simply assuring EPA that there was no contamination. According to EIP, at least one plant that reported no contamination to the federal government has been implicated as the source of pollution in state monitoring efforts.
“EPA’s Office of Solid Waste is still grinding away on proposed standards for coal ash disposal – more than three years after the TVA spill – but has somehow never found the time to require testing of the groundwater next to coal ash sites, or even to systematically collect the data that is already there. This “see no evil” approach leaves the public at risk, and makes it easier for polluters to duck responsibility for a growing problem,” charged Schaeffer.
EIP’s report “comes on the heels of a vote in the U.S. House of Representatives on an amendment to the Surface Transportation Act of 2012 that would prohibit the EPA from regulating coal ash.” West Virginia Senator Jay Rockefeller is opposing the measure, but only because he’s afraid it might derail the transportation bill.
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By Jennifer Mueller.