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article imagePower plants' coal ash reports — Toxins leaking into groundwater

By Karen Graham     Feb 8, 2018 in Environment
Utilities with coal ash ponds were required to complete water monitoring this year. Of the first 14 to file reports, 9 had 'significant increases' of toxic substances, including arsenic that may be leaking from unlined pits and contaminating groundwater.
An Earthjustice review of 14 industry reports has found unlined pits filled with coal ash waste are leaking toxic substances – including arsenic – into groundwater near old coal-burning power plants in eight states, according to a press release on Wednesday.
Coal ash is what is left over from power plants that burn coal for electricity. The ash is dumped into unlined pits at approximately 1,400 sites around the country. There the ash poses a significant threat to drinking water, neighborhoods, and air quality.
Under a 2015 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) coal ash rule, all U.S. electric generating utilities were required to analyze groundwater pollution at each of their operating coal ash dumps by January 31, 2018, and publish the results online by March 2. The report deadline also comes as the EPA, under Scott Pruitt is weighing whether to revise recently enacted groundwater monitoring rules at coal ash storage facilities.
Lowering of water level for a construction project revealed  toxic coal ash contamination bleeding i...
Lowering of water level for a construction project revealed toxic coal ash contamination bleeding into the lake from Duke Energy's Buck Steam Station near Salisbury.
Waterkeepers Alliance
As of Wednesday, only 14 companies have made their reports public, while the largest utility companies in the U.S., including Duke Energy, First Energy, Ameren, NRG, AES, and Dominion, have not posted the results of their groundwater monitoring. By law, these reports should already have been compiled, but apparently, they are waiting for the March 2 deadline to make them public.
“Hundreds more power plants will be making their required groundwater tests available online soon – and this is critical information that communities need to protect their drinking water from toxic pollution,” said Earthjustice Senior Counsel Lisa Evans. “From just this initial survey of these reports, we can see that groundwater contamination from coal ash pits is a grave concern.”
The importance of the groundwater monitoring reports
Most of the coal ash dumps, or "ponds" are unlined, and with many of them already found to be leaking deadly chemicals, including arsenic, hexavalent chromium, lead and thallium (rat poison), the monitoring reports are critical to the safety of the country's drinking water.
Duke Energy stores huge amounts of toxic coal ash in unlined pits (outlined in red) next to High Roc...
Duke Energy stores huge amounts of toxic coal ash in unlined pits (outlined in red) next to High Rock Lake, an impoundment of the Yadkin River. The two red dots on the left are where samples were taken in November, 2014.
Waterkeepers Alliance
For example, In 2008, a pond at the Kingston Fossil in Tennessee spilled over 1 billion gallons of coal ash into waterways, causing levels of toxic chemicals in nearby communities to spike. And in North Carolina, some residents have been using bottled water for almost three years after concerns about coal ash-contaminated groundwater were raised.
In a review of the 14 reports thus far submitted, nine companies had “statistically significant increases” of substances such as arsenic, antimony, molybdenum, lithium, boron, chlorides, pH and more in groundwater. Three more plants had evidence of "preliminary contamination," but final testing and analysis have not been completed.
Data also showed that levels of arsenic and radium were above the EPA's drinking water standards in a number of wells. Under the EPA's 2015 rules, plants finding contamination will need to do further testing and come up with a cleanup plan.
“Coal ash is a silent, tasteless killer,” Evans said. “But once the pollution is discovered, the EPA’s coal ash rule requires protection and cleanup. That’s why it is critical that this law stays in effect.”
A slurry  or sludge pond is used to dump toxic wastes after coal is cleaned.
A slurry, or sludge pond is used to dump toxic wastes after coal is cleaned.
Screen grab
The Trump administration, the EPA, and trashing of protections
When Trump took office last January, one of the first things to be addressed was environmental rules in the U.S. Saying we were overburdened by government regulations, the president began signing countless orders to roll them back.
One such request for a rollback of regulations came from the Utility Solid Waste Activities Group (USWAG), a trade association representing more than 100 power companies. In May 2017, the USWAG petitioned the EPA to weaken monitoring and remediation requirements in the 2015 coal ash rule.
In their petition, they described the 2015 rule as "burdensome, inflexible, and often impracticable." In September, the EPA announced it would reconsider certain provisions of the coal ash rule. All this is coming to pass, even as it is well documented that Coal ash is the second-largest stream of industrial waste in the country, and has been unregulated at the federal level for decades.
Scott Pruitt signing the proposal that would begin the lengthy legal process of rolling back the Cle...
Scott Pruitt signing the proposal that would begin the lengthy legal process of rolling back the Clean Power Plan rules enacted under president Obama.
Scott Pruitt - EPA
Coming to the bottom line - The EPA's Scott Pruitt has written a new rule, but it has not been published, although it is expected to be sometime later this month. To be sure, all the big utilities are hoping they will not have to publish their reports in March.
“The groundwater testing reports we examined reveal that the EPA’s coal ash rule is working as planned and will help protect aquifers near coal ash dumps from further pollution,” Evans said. “Communities that rely on this water for drinking should sleep better knowing that the existing federal law requires full disclosure of the hazardous chemicals leaking from these toxic dumps.”
Earthjustice is the nation’s original and largest nonprofit environmental law organization. Founded in 1971, Earthjustice is headquartered in San Francisco, California and has nine regional offices across the United States, an international department, a communications team, and a policy team in Washington, DC.
More about coal ash, Groundwater, Contamination, Epa, March 2 dealine
 
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