First Comprehensive, National Study of Coal Ash Pollution Finds Widespread Groundwater Contamination
An examination of monitoring data available for the first time concludes that 91 percent of U.S. coal-fired power plants with monitoring data are contaminating groundwater with unsafe levels of toxic pollutants.
The study by the Environmental Integrity Project, with assistance from Earthjustice, used industry data that became available to the public for the first time in 2018 because of requirements in federal coal ash regulations issued in 2015.
The report found that the groundwater near 242 of the 265 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, among other pollutants.
“At a time when the Trump EPA — now being run by a former coal lobbyist — is trying to roll back federal regulations on coal ash, these new data provide convincing evidence that we should be moving in the opposite direction: toward stronger protections for human health and the environment,” said Abel Russ, the lead author of the report and attorney with the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP).
Lisa Evans, Senior Counsel with Earthjustice, said: “This is a wake-up call for the nation. Using industry’s own data, our report proves that coal plants are poisoning groundwater nearly everywhere they operate. The Trump Administration insists on hurting communities across the U.S. by gutting federal protections. They are making a dire situation much worse.”
The data came from over 4,600 groundwater monitoring wells located around the ash dumps of 265 coal-fired power plants, which is roughly three quarters of the coal power plants across the U.S. The rest of the plants did not have to comply with the federal Coal Ash Rule’s groundwater monitoring requirements last year, either because they closed their ash dumps before the rule went into effect in 2015, or because they were eligible for an extension.
EIP’s analysis of the data found that a majority of the 265 coal plants have unsafe levels of at least four toxic constituents of coal ash in the underlying groundwater. Fifty-two percent had unsafe levels of arsenic, which can impair the brains of developing children and is known to cause cancer. Sixty percent of the plants have unsafe levels of lithium, a chemical associated with multiple health risks, including neurological damage.
Many of the coal ash waste ponds are poorly and unsafely designed, with less than 5 percent having waterproof liners to prevent contaminants from leaking into the groundwater, and 59 percent built beneath the water table or within five feet of it.
The report lists and ranks the sites across the U.S. with the worst groundwater contamination from coal ash.
Below are the “Top 10” most contaminated sites, according to the monitoring data reported by power companies in 2018:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Maryland: 19 miles southeast of Washington, D.C., 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 100times higher than safe levels. The contaminated groundwater at this site is now feeding into and polluting local streams.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
The researchers of this report could not determine the safety of drinking water near the coal ash dumps analyzed in this study because power companies are not required to test private drinking water wells.
However, the report contains examples of several well-documented instances of residential tap water contaminated by coal ash. For example:
- At the Colstrip Power Plant in Colstrip, Montana, unsafe levels of boron, sulfate and possibly other pollutants migrated into a residential neighborhood. The owners of the plant had to provide clean water, and settled a lawsuit with 57 local residents for $25 million in damages.
- At the Oak Creek Power Plant in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, contamination with elevated levels of molybdenum seeped from ash landfills into at least 33 nearby drinking water wells. Wisconsin Energy purchased at least 25 homes around the site and demolished several of them.
- At the Yorktown Power Station in Yorktown, Virginia, gravel pits were filled with fly ash, contaminating the water supply for 55 homes with arsenic, beryllium, chromium, manganese, selenium and other pollutants.
- At Battlefield Golf Course in Chesapeake, Virginia, about 25 drinking water wells had elevated levels of boron, manganese or thallium that may have leaked from coal ash used as a construction material beneath a golf course.
- At a coal ash landfill in Gambrills, Maryland, ash dumped in an old sand and gravel quarry caused unsafe levels of arsenic, beryllium, lithium, and other pollutants in multiple residential wells. Constellation Energy settled a lawsuit with impacted residents for $54 million.
Additional examples of contamination of residential drinking water outlined in the report are in Indiana, Illinois, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Wisconsin and North Carolina.
“This report is yet another example of why we must require full cleanup of these unlined and leaking coal ash pits,” said Amy Brown, a resident of Belmont, North Carolina, who lives near coal ash waste sites of the Duke Energy Allen Steam Station.
“The findings of this report are disturbing, but unfortunately not surprising,” said Jennifer Peters, National Water Programs Director for Clean Water Action. “For decades, coal utilities have been dumping their toxic waste in primitive pits — often unlined, unstable, and near groundwater — while state and federal regulators have mostly looked the other way. These dangerous coal ash ponds should have been closed and cleaned up years ago.”
The report details steps that EPA should take to more effectively protect public health and the environment from coal ash pollution. A more successful regulatory program would: regulate all coal ash dumps, including those that are inactive; require the excavation of dumps within five feet of the water table; require more monitoring, especially of nearby residential wells and surface water; and mandate more transparency and public reporting.
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