Coal Ash Waste Contamination Study – 31 New Water Pollution Cases

Sites found in 14 states, significantly increasing pressure on OMB to release delayed EPA rule


Raviya Ismail, Earthjustice, (202) 667-4500, ext. 221 

The case for the federal Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to stop sitting on a delayed Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) coal-ash site contamination rule is even stronger than it first appeared to be, according to a major new report from Earthjustice and the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP). The analysis by Earthjustice and EIP identifies 31 additional coal-ash contamination sites in 14 states, which, when added to the 70 in the EPA’s justification for the pending rule, brings the total of coal-fired power plant waste storage sites with poisoned water to 101.


With data showing arsenic and other toxic metal levels in contaminated water at some coal-ash disposal sites at up to 145 times federally permissible levels, the EIP/Earthjustice report identifies 31 coal-ash waste sites where groundwater, wetlands, creeks, or rivers have been polluted with "wastes (that) contain some of the earth’s most deadly pollutants, including arsenic, cadmium, lead, selenium, and other toxic metals that can cause cancer and neurological harm (in humans) or poison fish."  The 31 sites are located in the following 14 states: Delaware (1); Florida (3); Illinois (1); Indiana (2); Maryland (1); Michigan (1); Montana (1); Nevada (1); New Mexico (1); North Carolina (6); Pennsylvania (6); South Carolina (3); Tennessee (2); and West Virginia (2).   

U.S. coal-fired power plants generate nearly 140 million tons of fly ash, scrubber sludge, and other combustion wastes every year. The EPA has indicated that coal ash dumps significantly increase risks to both people and wildlife. For example, EPA’s 2007 risk assessment estimated that up to one in 50 residents living near certain wet ash ponds could get cancer due to arsenic contamination of drinking water. 

Highlights of the EIP/Earthjustice report include:

  • Arsenic, a potent human carcinogen, has been found at 19 of 31 sites at extremely high levels, with one site found at nearly 150 times the federal water standard. Arsenic causes multiple forms of cancer, including cancer of the liver, kidney, lung, bladder, and skin.  Offsite arsenic levels in ash-contaminated groundwater from the Reid Gardner plant (Nevada) have been measured at 31 times the EPA drinking water standard of 10 micrograms per liter.
  • At least 26 of these 31 sites report contamination that exceeds one or more primary drinking water standards.
  • 25 out of the 31 sites are still active disposal sites.
  • At 15 of the 31 sites, contamination has already migrated offsite at levels that exceed drinking water or surface water quality standards.  The remaining 16 sites show evidence of severe onsite pollution.
  • The damage is not limited to "wet" ash ponds that received extensive attention after the disastrous ash spill at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston plant in December 2008. No fewer than 13 of the contaminated sites documented in the EIP/Earthjustice report involved so-called "dry" disposal, including two "structural fills" that were advertised as "beneficial reuse" of coal ash.
  • Examples cited in the report include:  a boron- and sulfate-contaminated drinking water supply that sickened people in Montana and had to be abandoned; major arsenic pollution from a coal ash dump that contributed to a Great Lake Bay becoming an "International Area of Concern"; a mile-long plume of contamination in Florida; mercury contamination of residential wells in Tennessee; and selenium levels in West Virginia surface waters at 4-5 times what is permitted under federal law.
  • The poisoned water damage could easily have been prevented with available safeguards, such as phasing out leak-prone ash ponds and requiring the use of synthetic liners and leachate collection systems. As the report notes: "Incredibly, ash and other coal combustion wastes are not subject to any federal regulations. The EPA promised to close this loophole by proposing new standards before the end of 2009. Instead, EPA’s draft rule is stalled at the Office of Management and Budget, where an avalanche of lobbyists hope it will stay buried."

Jeff Stant, director, Coal Combustion Waste Initiative, Environmental Integrity Project, said: "While the catastrophic spill at TVA’s Kingston plant has become the poster child for the damage that coal ash can wreak, there are hundreds of leaking sites throughout the United States where the damage is deadly, but far less conspicuous. This problem needs an immediate national solution — in the form of federally enforceable standards that protect every community near coal ash dump sites. Water sources contaminated by coal ash may eventually be cleaned up, but only at great expense over long periods of time. Injury to human health or wildlife, however, cannot always be reversed. The data are overwhelming, and these 31 sites sound a clear warning that the EPA must heed before much more damage is done."

Lisa Evans, senior administrative counsel, Earthjustice, said: "The data are overwhelming: these unregulated sites present a clear and present danger to public health and the environment. If law and science are to guide our most important environmental decisions, as EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson has promised, we need to regulate these hazards before they get much worse."

J. Russell Boulding, principal, Boulding Soil-Water Consulting, Bloomington, Indiana, said: "The 100-some damage cases that are now well documented are just the tip of the iceberg. Our experience in compiling these damage cases is that if there are data available on surface and groundwater quality in the vicinity of a CCW disposal area, you will find contamination. How many hundreds more damaged sites are out there waiting to be identified? A federal policy that allows each State to address the complex issues of how best to regulate disposal of CCW so as to protect human health and ecosystems has failed. It is irresponsible to further delay the development of national standards by EPA."

Donna Marie Lisenby, Upper Watauga Riverkeeper, Appalachian Voices, and board member of Waterkeeper Alliance, Boone, North Carolina, said: "The pollution present in this waste is among the earth’s most harmful to aquatic life and humans — arsenic, lead, selenium, cadmium and other heavy metals, which cause cancer and crippling neurological damage. If these poisons can be kept out of the fish we eat, the water we drink, bathe in, and need to survive, simply through regulation, than we must take that long overdue step, not only for the sake of our public waters but for humanity’s sake as well."

Other Key Study Findings

  • Concentrations of toxic pollution at many of these coal-ash sites are shockingly high. Groundwater monitoring data show that pollutant concentrations have exceeded federal drinking water standards by a factor of 10 or more at the following sites: Indian River Power Plant Burton Island Landfill (arsenic, 145 times the standards); Grainger Generating Station (arsenic, 92 times); TransAsh Landfill (arsenic, 27 times); Seminole Generating Station (arsenic, 19 times); Karn Weadock Generating Facility (arsenic, 100 times); Brandywine Landfill (cadmium, 100 times); Big Bend Station (arsenic, 11 times); Seward Generating Station (antimony, 17 times); Fern Valley Landfill (arsenic, 36 times); Lee Steam Plant (arsenic, 44 times); Sutton Steam Plant (arsenic, 29 times); Hunlock Power Station (arsenic, 12 times); and Wateree Station (arsenic, 18 times). (See the full EIP/Earthjustice report for the location of specific coal ash dumpsites.)
  • Low-income communities shoulder a disproportionate share of the health risks from disposal of coal combustion waste. A majority of the 31 sites in this report are located in communities that that are above the national median for percent of low-income families. Similar high poverty rates are found in 118 of the 120 coal-producing counties, where coal combustion wastes increasingly are being disposed in unlined, under-regulated mines, often in direct contact with groundwater.
  • Monitoring data for 15 of the disposal sites identified in the report show significant offsite pollution. At least 8 coal ash dump sites contaminated groundwater beyond site boundaries: Big Bend Station (Florida), Gibson Power Plant (Indiana), Karn and Weadock Generating Facility (Michigan), Colstrip Power Plant (Montana), Swift Creek Landfill (North Carolina), Reid Gardner Generating Facility (Nevada), Phillips Orion (Pennsylvania), and Trans Ash, Inc. (Tennessee).
  • Lead, a deadly neurotoxin that can damage the central nervous system, especially in young children, was found at eight sites at up to 10 times the federal safe level.
  • Selenium, a chemical deadly to fish at very low levels, was found at eight sites, exceeding federal water quality criteria at one West Virginia stream by more than 9.5 times.
  • The data also show extremely high levels of other contaminants, such as sulfates and boron. High sulfate concentrations make water undrinkable, and an EPA health advisory warns that ingestion of boron above 3 milligrams per liter can sicken small children. Sulfate levels at some sites are up to 24 times above EPA "secondary" standards for drinking water, while boron concentrations have been many times higher than the EPA’s health advisory. Three of the 31 facilities polluted drinking water at levels above health advisories and drinking water standards for boron (Gibson and Colstrip), and mercury (Trans Ash). Contamination from the Colstrip site sickened people, forced the closure of the drinking water well at a nearby Moose Lodge, and triggered a $25 million settlement with nearby residents. At the Gibson site in Indiana, Duke Energy is supplying bottled water to residents of East Mt. Carmel. Lastly, near the Trans Ash facility in Tennessee, a new water supply was piped to a resident after mercury levels in her well were measured at more than 5 times the drinking water standard.
  • At least eight coal ash dumps cited in this report polluted wetlands, creeks and rivers. According to publicly available monitoring data, offsite contaminant levels at six sites were above federal or state water quality criteria: Indian River Power Plant (Delaware), Brandywine Landfill (Maryland), Four Corners Power Plant (New Mexico), and Seward Generating Station (Pennsylvania), and the Mitchell Generating Station and John Amos Power Plant ash sites in West Virginia. For example, groundwater from the Brandywine Landfill in Maryland discharges to adjacent Mattaponi Creek, and cadmium levels frequently exceed thresholds established to protect aquatic life. An onsite well at the landfill recorded cadmium concentrations up to 100 times the drinking water standard. At the Four Corners Power Plant, boron and selenium concentrations downstream from the plant’s coal ash ponds are much higher than upstream levels and approximately twice the levels established to protect aquatic life.
  • The Mitchell and John Amos plants in West Virginia discharge large quantities of selenium into Connor Run and Little Scary Creek, respectively, and the State of West Virginia has identified both as "fly-ash influenced streams." Selenium levels in each stream were more than 6 times the level the EPA has determined is safe for aquatic life. Toxic selenium in fish taken from Connor Run averaged about 3 times the fish tissue limit that the EPA has proposed, while selenium concentrations in fish from Little Scary Creek exceeded the proposed limit by 7-fold.
  • From the Karn Weadock ash disposal site in Michigan, groundwater heavily laden with arsenic flows to Saginaw Bay at a level that contributed to the designation of part of Lake Huron as an "International Area of Concern." Data indicate that high levels of arsenic are also found in drainage from the Wateree site in South Carolina, as documented in onsite groundwater wells and in arsenic-filled catfish in the adjacent Wateree River.

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