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Nearly all coal-fired power plants contaminating groundwater

The report, issued by the Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice, used data made available to the public in 2018 under the EPA’s coal ash rule.

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.

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.

Emissions spew out of a large stack at the coal fired Morgantown Generating Station  on May 29  2014...

Emissions spew out of a large stack at the coal fired Morgantown Generating Station, on May 29, 2014 in Newburg, Maryland
Mark Wilson, Getty/AFP/File

The report found the groundwater near 242 of the 265 coal-fired power plants with monitoring data contained unsafe levels of one or more of the pollutants in coal ash, including arsenic, a known carcinogen, and lithium, which is associated with neurological damage, as well as mercury and radium, among others.
Why does this study matter?
Because coal ash contains so many toxic chemicals, you would think the holding ponds would be lined, yet only 5 percent of them are lined, and 59 percent of them sit 5 feet beneath the water table.

“That makes it an absolute certainty that they’re going to leak into the groundwater,” Elizabeth Southerland, who directed the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Science and Technology’s Office of Water for over 30 years, told Earther.

Unfortunately, most of these coal-fired power plants also are close to low-income communities and communities of color are the ones likely to suffer the most from this threat Southerland said, “The threat won’t go away as long as EPA Administrator (and former coal lobbyist) Andrew Wheeler is in charge, either.”

Macro of ash from the TVA Kingston Fossil Plant retention pond failure near Harriman  Tennessee  in ...

Macro of ash from the TVA Kingston Fossil Plant retention pond failure near Harriman, Tennessee, in the southeastern United States. This ash was located in the inlet appx. one mile downstream from the retention pond site, just off Swan Pond Road.
Brian Stansberry

And one more concern – The Coal Ash Rule does not regulate older, closed coal ash dumps, even though they too are contaminating groundwater. There are hundreds of these older ash dumps across the country. Even more alarming is that the Coal Ash Rule does not require the monitoring or testing of drinking water wells near coal ash ponds, so the threat is largely undefined.
The 10 most polluted sites
The contamination at a given site typically involves multiple chemicals. The majority of coal plants have unsafe levels of at least four toxic constituents of coal ash. This report also identifies the 10 sites with the worst contamination in the country. They are:
1. Texas: An hour south of San Antonio, beside the San Miguel Power Plant, the groundwater beneath a family ranch is contaminated with at least 12 pollutants leaking from coal ash dumps, including cadmium (a probable carcinogen according to EPA) and lithium (which can cause nerve damage) at concentrations more than 100 times above safe levels.
2. North Carolina: 12 miles west of Charlotte, at Duke Energy’s Allen Steam Station in Belmont, the coal ash dumps were built beneath the water table and are leaking cobalt (which causes thyroid damage) into groundwater at concentrations more than 500 times above safe levels, along with unsafe levels of eight other pollutants.
3. Wyoming: 180 miles west of Laramie, at PacifiCorp’s Jim Bridger power plant in Point of Rocks, the groundwater has levels of lithium and selenium (which can be toxic to humans and lethal at low concentrations to fish) that exceed safe levels by more than 100 fold.
4. Wyoming: At the Naughton power plant in southwest Wyoming, the groundwater has not only levels of lithium and selenium exceeding safe levels by more than 100 fold, but also arsenic at five times safe levels.

View of collapsed coal ash impoundment and closed power plant at Dan River Steam Station (Duke Energ...

View of collapsed coal ash impoundment and closed power plant at Dan River Steam Station (Duke Energy), Eden, North Carolina. The impoundment failure caused the 2014 Dan River coal ash spill.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Atlanta, GA.

5. Pennsylvania: An hour northwest of Pittsburgh, at the New Castle Generating Station, levels of arsenic in the groundwater near the plant’s coal ash dump are at 372 times safe levels for drinking.
6. Tennessee: Just southwest of Memphis near the Mississippi River, at the TVA Allen Fossil Plant, arsenic has leaked into the groundwater at 350 times safe levels and lead at four times safe levels. Recent studies show a direct connection between the contaminated shallow aquifer and the deeper Memphis aquifer, creating a threat to drinking water for thousands of people.
7. Maryland: 19 miles southeast of Washington, DC, at the Brandywine landfill in Prince George’s County, ash from three NRG coal plants has contaminated groundwater with unsafe levels of at least eight pollutants, including lithium at more than 200 times above safe levels, and molybdenum (which can damage the kidney and liver) at more than 100 times higher than safe levels. The contaminated groundwater at this site is now feeding into and polluting local streams.
8. Utah: South of Salt Lake City, at the Hunter Power plant, the groundwater is contaminated with lithium at concentrations 228 times safe levels and cobalt at 26 times safe levels.
9. Mississippi: North of Biloxi, at the R.D. Morrow Sr. Generating Station, the groundwater is contaminated with lithium at 193 times safe levels, molybdenum at 171 times safe levels, and arsenic at three times safe levels.
10. Kentucky: At the Ghent Generating Station northeast of Louisville, lithium is in the groundwater at 154 times safe levels and radium at 31 times safe levels.

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We are deeply saddened to announce the passing of our dear friend Karen Graham, who served as Editor-at-Large at Digital Journal. She was 78 years old. Karen's view of what is happening in our world was colored by her love of history and how the past influences events taking place today. Her belief in humankind's part in the care of the planet and our environment has led her to focus on the need for action in dealing with climate change. It was said by Geoffrey C. Ward, "Journalism is merely history's first draft." Everyone who writes about what is happening today is indeed, writing a small part of our history.

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