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Cancer: Coal's Hidden Cost

New EPA Risk Assessment finds extraordinary cancer risk from coal ash; lack of federal regulations endanger U.S. water supplies
March 6, 2007
Washington, D.C. —

The risk of getting cancer from coal ash lagoons is 10,000 times greater than government safety standards allow, according to a draft report from the Environmental Protection Agency obtained by an environmental group. Although the EPA acknowledges this risk, it has neglected to adopt regulations that will limit exposure and protect against the health threats of America's second-largest industrial solid waste stream, coal ash.


While EPA has not yet formally released the revised assessment, environmental groups received a summary of the draft, which indicates that the cancer risk for adults and children drinking groundwater contaminated with arsenic from coal combustion waste dumps can be as high as 1 in 100 -- 10,000 times higher than EPA's regulatory goals for reducing cancer risks. Read excerpts from the EPA assesment. (PDF)


EPA's failure to limit pollution from coal combustion waste, or coal ash, has poisoned surface and groundwater supplies in at least 23 states, by EPA's own admission. Coal combustion waste is the solid waste produced by coal-fired power plants, which produce approximately 129 million tons of the waste each year. The waste is contaminated with toxic chemicals such as mercury, arsenic, lead, cadmium, chromium and selenium. There are currently about 600 existing coal ash landfills and surface impoundments in the U.S. See the amount of coal ash generated in each state in 2004. (PDF)


There are currently plans to build over 150 new coal-fired power plants in the United States by 2030. Pollution from coal ash impoundments will undoubtedly worsen unless EPA takes the necessary steps to protect neighborhoods and communities from this dangerous pollution source. EPA acknowledges that coal ash landfills and surface impoundments have contaminated water above federal drinking water standards in the following states: Texas, Maryland, New York, Virginia, Wisconsin, Indiana, North Carolina, and South Carolina. The agency also acknowledges that more cases of drinking water damage occur, but that monitoring systems are not in place to detect contamination at a large percentage of the existing dumps.


A broad coalition of 27 environmental and public health groups, led by Earthjustice, Clean Air Task Force, and the Environmental Integrity Project, recently submitted a proposal to EPA detailing ways to protect against pollution from the millions of tons of coal ash disposed annually by U.S. coal-fired power plants. The groups also requested that EPA take immediate action to investigate and abate pollution at coal ash dump sites.


"It's very simple," said Earthjustice attorney Lisa Evans. "Coal combustion waste currently disposed without adequate safeguards poses an imminent and substantial endangerment to health and the environment in dozens of communities throughout the country. EPA has made no effort to protect the public against these pollution sources for over seven years. We believe it is time to act."


In 2000, EPA committed to establishing regulations for coal ash disposal. Since then, the agency has met repeatedly with industrial polluters and will soon issue a Notice of Data Availability (NODA), which is expected to defer federal waste regulation in favor of a voluntary industry agreement. However, the voluntary industry agreement, announced by a consortium of coal-fired electric utilities last fall, promises no controls on the hundreds of existing waste dumps and gives industry three years to place monitoring wells around dumps within a mile of drinking water sources.


Simple measures such as isolating the waste from groundwater, prohibiting dumping of coal ash in sand and gravel pits, and lining landfills and surface impoundments would have a huge impact on limiting pollution from these facilities.


"The people who are exposed to a greater cancer risk by drinking water poisoned by coal ash landfills and surface impoundments need to be heard," said Jeff Stant, Director of the Power Plant Waste-Safe Disposal Project for the Clean Air Task Force. "EPA has ignored affected communities for far too long."


"Many coal ash disposal sites lack the most basic safeguards such as liners, covers, and groundwater monitoring -- standards that are routinely required for household trash at sanitary landfills," states Eric Schaeffer, Director of the Environmental Integrity Project. "In fact, in many cases, the operators are simply dumping the waste straight into groundwater and face no cleanup requirements by states."


The National Academies of Science (NAS) found in a March 2006 report studying the practice by utilities of dumping coal combustion wastes in coal mines that high contaminant levels in leachate, or runoff, from coal ash dumps has contaminated drinking water and caused considerable environmental damage, including the local extinction of multiple species. The NAS report cited EPA's commitment in 2000 to promulgate federal regulations to require adequate safeguards for disposal of toxic ash and called for the development of regulations mandating safeguards for minefilling. The Environmental Protection Agency, nevertheless, has neglected issuing these much needed safeguards.


Read comments filed by Earthjustice regarding the EPA's draft report (PDF):


Cover letter | Part A | Part B | Part C | Part D

Contacts

Lisa Evans, Earthjustice, (781) 631-4119
Eric Schaeffer, Environmental Integrity Project, (202) 296-8800
Jeff Stant, Clean Air Task Force, (317) 359-1306

About Earthjustice

Earthjustice is the premier nonprofit environmental law organization. We wield the power of law and the strength of partnership to protect people’s health, to preserve magnificent places and wildlife, to advance clean energy, and to combat climate change. We are here because the earth needs a good lawyer.