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New Study Reports Pennsylvania Groundwater Contamination from Coal Ash

Ash from power plants used to fill mines is poisoning water throughout PA; Local group petitions EPA for assistance
September 18, 2007
Harrisburg, PA — 

Disposing of coal ash in mines is contaminating water supplies throughout Pennsylvania, according to a report released today by Clean Air Task Force (CATF) and Earthjustice. In 10 of 15 mines examined across the state, groundwater and streams near areas where coal ash, or coal combustion waste, was placed had levels of arsenic, lead, cadmium and selenium and other pollutants above safe standards.

 

"Disposing of coal combustion waste in these mines is threatening water supplies all over the state," said Jeff Stant, director of the Pennsylvania Minefill Research Project at the Clean Air Task Force. "If the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection won't act now to stop these dangers, the US EPA should step in to protect the residents of Pennsylvania who live near coal ash mine fills."

The study, "Impacts on Water Quality from Placement of Coal Combustion Waste in Pennsylvania Coal Mines," is available here: www.catf.us/goto/paminefill.

A 4-page background document is available here: http://www.earthjustice.org/library/factsheets/coal-ash-in-pennsylvania.pdf

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP) has repeatedly touted the 'beneficial use' of coal ash in these active and abandoned mines, claiming that the practice limits the outflow of acidic water from mines. The study found the opposite was true: in six of the nine permits that used coal ash to treat acid mine drainage, acidity levels actually increased, leaving the mines more acidic at the end of monitoring, not less.

"For years, federal agencies have refused to adopt meaningful safeguards for disposing of this toxic material. They have allowed states like Pennsylvania to use coal mines as dump sites for coal ash from power plants, calling it 'beneficial use,'" said Lisa Evans, an attorney for Earthjustice and one of the report's contributing authors. "This report shows that this practice is doing more harm than good."

CATF and Earthjustice, in coordination with professional geologists and water quality experts, found that a lack of safeguards to keep coal ash out of water, inadequate monitoring and no cleanup standards has led to unaddressed contamination in two-thirds of the mines studied. The study reinforced findings by the National Academies of Science that high contaminant levels in coal ash leachate pose human health and ecological concerns and that enforceable minimum standards are needed in national regulations for the minefilling of coal combustion wastes.

"I have sampled mine pools under waste sites in eastern Pennsylvania for more than 20 years and am extremely concerned about high levels of lead and cadmium in mine pools underneath mines where coal ash has been placed," said Robert Gadinski, a professional geologist retired from PADEP who was a contributing author of the report.

The study makes 13 recommendations to improve the PADEP 'beneficial use' placement of coal ash in mines. These changes include safeguards in regulations that would require adequate short- and long-term monitoring, limits on pollution allowed from the ash, isolation of ash from water, and financial resources set aside by operators to clean up the pollution caused by their ash.

In addition, a local watershed group is demanding immediate action instead of waiting for PADEP. "Based on the findings of this report, the Mahanoy Creek Watershed Association is petitioning the US EPA today to examine the contamination of massive mine pools under the Ellengowan and BD Mines for cleanup under Superfund," said Robert Krick of the Mahanoy Creek Watershed Association. Monitoring data reveals lead and cadmium 30-40 times federal drinking water standards and hundreds of times the national water quality criteria down gradient from the 16 million tons of coal ash dumped in the two mines.

"With some 120 mines permitted to dump coal ash, Pennsylvania leads the nation in this practice, which is destined to grow in Appalachia if trends continue," said Eric Schaeffer of the Environmental Integrity Project, which has been monitoring the Pennsylvania's coal ash program. "We hope this Report will show EPA and OSM officials that common sense safeguards, recommended by the National Academies of Science and enforced at landfills that accept far less dangerous municipal wastes, are needed."

Over 129 million tons of coal combustion waste (CCW) are generated from U.S. coal-fired power plants each year and this waste has poisoned groundwater supplies in at least 23 states according to EPA. Last month, EPA released a report that found that cancer risks from exposure to CCW lagoons is 900 times greater than government safety standards recommend. Today's study offers a glimpse into the impact that CCW disposal has had in only a fraction of mines where it is placed. Currently, there are about 600 existing CCW landfills and surface impoundments in the United States and hundreds of mine fills. These sites can contain high levels of lead, cadmium, chromium, mercury and arsenic, among other toxic chemical pollutants.

To view video footage of some of the Pennsylvania sites, please visit: http://web.mac.com/green_wuuti/iWeb/Site/Welcome.html


Contact:

Jeff Stant, Clean Air Task Force, (317) 331-3607 (cell)
Lisa Evans, Earthjustice, (781) 771-8916
Eric Schaeffer, Environmental Integrity Project, (202) 296-8800
Dante Picciano, Army for a Clean Environment, (570) 386-5744