New Study Shows Coal Ash Water Contamination Much Worse Than Previous Estimates

39 additional sites where coal ash is contaminating water are discovered, a total of 70 sites since February far exceed previous EPA estimates


Jared Saylor, Earthjustice (202) 667-4500, ext. 213

Days before the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) kicks off a series of regional hearings across the United States on whether and how to regulate toxic coal ash waste from coal-fired power plants, a major new study identifies 39 additional coal-ash dump sites in 21 states that are contaminating drinking water or surface water with arsenic and other heavy metals.  The report by the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP), Earthjustice and the Sierra Club documents the fact that state governments are not adequately monitoring the coal combustion waste (CCW) disposal sites and that the EPA needs to enact strong new regulations to protect the public.

The new Earthjustice/EIP/Sierra Club report (PDF, 6MB) shows that at every one of the coal ash dump sites equipped with groundwater monitoring wells concentrations of heavy metals such as arsenic or lead exceed federal health-based standards for drinking water, with concentrations at Hatfield’s Ferry site in Pennsylvania reaching as high as 341 times the federal standard for arsenic. (See study highlights below.)

A February 2010 EIP/Earthjustice report documented 31 coal ash dump sites in 14 states.  The 39 additional sites in today’s report along with the 67 already identified by the EPA bring the total number of known toxic contamination sites from coal ash pollution to 137 sites in 34 states.  Together, the independent reports and the EPA’s own findings make clear the growing number of waters known to be poisoned by poor management of the toxic ash left over after coal is burned for electricity.

"There is no greater reason for coal ash regulation than preventing the poisoning of our water.  We now have 39 more good reasons for a national coal ash rule,” said Lisa Evans, Senior Legislative Counsel at Earthjustice.  “The mounting number of contaminated sites demonstrates that the states are unable or unwilling to solve this problem."

“The contamination of water supplies, threats to people, and damage to the environment documented in this report illustrate very real and dangerous harms that are prohibited by federal law but are going on in a largely unchecked fashion at today’s coal ash dump sites,” said Jeff Stant, director, Coal Combustion Waste Initiative, Environmental Integrity Project.

"The health risks from exposure to this toxic waste are real and we cannot afford to ignore them any longer,” said Lyndsay Moseley, Federal Policy Representative with Sierra Club.  “It is clear from this report that the closer we look the worse this problem becomes.  The only real solution is for the EPA to adopt federally enforceable protections as part of its push to improve public health.”

Report Highlights:

Coal ash pollution poses serious health risks.  People living near unlined coal ash ponds can have an extremely high 1 in 50 risk of cancer.  That’s more than 2,000 times higher than what the EPA considers acceptable.  The toxins found in coal ash have also been linked to organ disease, respiratory illness, neurological damage, and developmental problems.

  • Coal ash contamination of water is pervasive in the United States.  The total number of sites polluted by coal ash (including scrubber sludge) now is at least 137 in 34 states.  These contaminated sites represent a substantial percentage (29 percent) of the approximately 467 plants that dispose of coal ash onsite or offsite.
  • Coal ash is putting drinking water from private wells at risk.  Contaminated groundwater underneath at least 15 of the 39 sites is moving toward private water wells within two miles of site boundaries, according to monitoring data and public information on private well locations.  Public information on private drinking water wells is often incomplete, limited, or out of date, but for at least eight of these sites—Lansing, Joliet 9, Muskingum, Gavin, Uniontown, Bruce Mansfield, Oak Creek, and Fayette Power—there are 25 or more private drinking water wells at or within two miles of the site.  At the Joliet 9 and Uniontown sites there are 90 or more private drinking water wells within a mile of the contaminated site.
  • Coal ash threatens public water wells and intakes.  At least 18 of the 39 contaminated sites are located within five miles of a public groundwater well that could potentially be affected by pollutants from these sites.  At nine of those sites, there are at least five public water wells within a five-mile radius.
  • Coal ash toxins are threatening surface waters.  In several cases (e.g., Hatfield’s Ferry (PA), Gallatin, and Johnsonville in TN), coal ash dump sites are leaking their toxic cargo into rivers just upstream from the intakes for public water systems.  Often, metals like arsenic are discharged to rivers through adjacent groundwater.  For example, monitoring wells in an aquifer that flows from the Hatfield’s Ferry (PA) site to the Monongahela River, less than half a mile away, have consistently measured arsenic at levels substantially above the MCL for the last five years.  Lax regulation of ash disposal sites that drain into large rivers such as TVA’s Shawnee (KY), Gallatin and Johnsonville (TN) sites along the Ohio, Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers respectively, the Big Cajun (LA) and Lansing (IA) sites along the Mississippi River or Leland Olds (ND) site along the Missouri River assumes that harmful concentrations of metals in groundwater or surface water discharges from ash sites will be diluted to safe levels in the river water but ignores the long-term build-up of metals from such discharges in river ecosystems.
  • Most damaged sites are still active and virtually all show recent evidence of contamination. The damaged sites identified cannot be dismissed as a legacy of past practices that are no longer allowed today.  Almost all of the facilities described in the report are active disposal sites.  The contamination is documented by recent data (from 2007 or later) at 32 of the 35 sites for which groundwater monitoring results are available.  Even the few closed sites show that contamination often continues and even worsens for generations after disposal ceases.  For example, nearly 40 years after coal ash disposal stopped at the Montville site (CT), average concentrations of arsenic in groundwater collected in 2007-2009 still exceed the MCL by 21 times and are higher than measurements taken ten years ago.
  • Illegal open dumping in violation of federal law may be occurring.  As many as 27 of the 35 sites where groundwater is contaminated may be illegal open dumps according to federal law, based on the high levels of metals found in the groundwater.  When such standards are exceeded, federal law requires that the operator close the dump, stop the flow of contamination, or obtain a waiver from the state that allows the facility to pollute the underlying aquifer.  However, the EPA has no authority to enforce these standards.  Even though states have the primary authority to enforce these standards, it appears that they have routinely ignored the federal open dumping guidelines for coal ash dumps and allowed illegal dumps to operate and contaminate potential drinking water sources.
  • Many states require no groundwater monitoring at all.  Large coal ash-generating states like Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Indiana, Ohio, Mississippi, Missouri, New Mexico, and Tennessee require no monitoring by law at ash ponds.  Although data were available for the Lower Colorado River Authority’s ash pond, most coal ash dump sites in Texas are exempt from any regulation or monitoring by the state.  States whose regulations fail to require monitoring at ash ponds, both old and new, accounted for approximately 70 percent of the coal combustion waste generated nationwide in 2008.  A few of these states require monitoring only at new ponds, but since 75 percent of waste ponds are over 25 years old and 10 percent are over 50 years old, these state regulations leave a large and dangerous gap.
  • States agencies have not required polluters to cleanup even as contamination increases.  Power companies that own or operate sites that contaminate groundwater ought to be required to clean them up.  At 21 sites examined in this study, the evidence of groundwater contamination was serious enough to cause the state agency to require additional monitoring and some assessment of its causes.  Too often, state agencies routinely accept claims by utilities that contaminant increases are the result of sampling anomalies, or that “nature” is responsible for heavy metal concentrations that are in fact far above background levels.  Without further investigation of the flimsy evidence, states let operators return to reduced monitoring or stop monitoring altogether.  In the meantime, the utilities may quietly purchase surrounding property where wells are contaminated, often without alerting the state or the community that a danger exists.  At no site did a state require the utility company to stop the contamination, let alone clean it up.

Report: In Harm’s Way: Lack Of Federal Coal Ash Regulations Endangers Americans And Their Environment [6MB]

Additional Resources

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.