Report: Toxic Coal Ash Contaminating Groundwater in 39 States

An extensive analysis of monitoring data found unsafe levels of toxic pollutants were present in groundwater at 91 percent of the nation's 242 coal-fired power plants that filed reports.
by | March 5, 2019 AT 7:08 AM

By D.E. Smoot

An extensive analysis of monitoring data found unsafe levels of toxic pollutants were present in groundwater at 91 percent of the nation's 242 coal-fired power plants that filed reports.

A study published Monday by the Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice examined data made public for the first time a year ago pursuant to coal ash regulations issued in 2015. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency began regulating coal ash after some "high profile structural failures and spills" exposed the "true scope of coal ash's threat."

Coal ash is a byproduct of burning coal that contains toxic chemicals like arsenic, a known carcinogen, and lithium, which is associated with neurological damage. Other chemicals detected at coal ash dumps at four sites in Oklahoma include lead, sulfate, boron, molybdenum and radium.

Abel Russ, the lead author of the report and an EIP lawyer, said the "new data provide convincing evidence" that EPA should be working "toward stronger protections for human health and the environment." It has initiated instead efforts to roll back the Obama-era Coal Ash Rule even after a federal circuit court held this past year those regulations didn't go far enough.

Russ said the analysis of data reported by 265 coal-fired plants shows those facilities fall into three categories. In addition to 242 plants where groundwater contamination appears to be coming from regulated coal ash dumps, there are 12 plants that show signs of contamination, but the source could not be traced with certainty and 11 where the groundwater meets drinking water standards.

"We are understating the true scope of the problem in several ways," Russ said. "Any coal ash dumps that were closed before 2015 are not regulated, they're not monitored, and we don't know much about them."

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 United States. The rest of the plants did not have to comply with the federal Coal Ash Rule's groundwater monitoring requirements last year because they either closed their ash dumps before the rule went into effect in 2015 or were eligible for an extension.

The Muskogee Generating Plant operated by OG&E is one of those facilities. OG&E spokesman Brian Alford said the company decided to close an emergency ash basin on site in part due to the 2015 regulations. He said plans to convert two coal units to natural gas also was part of the equation when the decision was made, but most of the coal ash generated there was disposed of elsewhere.

"The great majority of our ash today is recycled and used in concrete, construction, brick manufacturing and other types of application," Alford said. "When we do have off-site needs, we use state-approved solid waste landfills."

Alford declined to say where those state-approved landfills are located, but said he was sure they were subject to ongoing monitoring by state regulators. Oklahoma was granted authority in 2018 by EPA to establish and enforce its own coal ash regulations, which are supposed to be at least as strict as the federal rules, but EIP and Earthjustice reported no evidence of monitoring or enforcement at the federal or state level anywhere.

Alford said there was no groundwater monitoring done at the Muskogee Generating Plant before closure of the emergency ash basin or since its closure. He said there is monitoring that will take place as part of its closure plan, and the first report will be made public in August.

The closure plan includes the removal of all of the material in the basin, which reportedly is being recycled or transported to a landfill. A closing plan document filed with regulators states OG&E never was required to maintain historical inventory of that material, but it was estimated to be 82,000 cubic yards.

Once the material is removed, it will be back-filled with soil, revegetated, maintained and monitored for a period of time. Those stages of the project are scheduled through the remainder of this year with a certificate of closure expected to be filed in 2020.

(c)2019 the Muskogee Phoenix (Muskogee, Okla.)