Toxic substances from coal ash are leaking into the groundwater, yet utility companies keep petitioning for weaker monitoring rules

Sunday, March 04, 2018 by

The first power plant coal ash reports have now been made publicly available for the first time since they were required to be submitted a couple of years back, and the data doesn’t look pretty. Based on an analysis conducted by the environmental law organization Earthjustice, the data shows – rather conclusively – that there are toxic substances like arsenic currently being leaked from unlined pits, thereby contaminating groundwater at more than a few hundred coal ash storage facilities across the country.

Of the 14 power plants reviewed by Earthjustice, nine were found to show “statistically significant increases” of toxic materials present in groundwater near their respective coal ash containment ponds. This data clearly won’t sit well with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which is said to be weighing whether or not to revise some recently enacted groundwater monitoring rules on coal ash storage locations.

According to Lisa Evans, Earthjustice’s Senior Counsel, the results of their analysis could be a clue that points toward a much bigger problem. “This data tells a story, and the story is alarming,” she stated. “If the present reports are any indication of the percentage of sites that are admitting significant contamination of groundwater, this is going to indicate a severe, nationwide problem.”

In contrast, a coalition that represents the power plants themselves urges more careful consideration when examining the data from the reports. According to James Roewer, the executive director of the Utility Solid Waste Activities Group (USWAG), it’s a bit too early to draw conclusions from the reports. “We shouldn’t be jumping the gun,” he explained. “This is the first step. It doesn’t mean that drinking water is adversely affected.”

It is said that ponds are used to store coal ash once they are left after power plants finish going through the process of burning coal. And once the ash contaminates groundwater, there could be numerous risks posed to human health depending on where it moves afterward.

According to Evans, the main danger involves the contamination of drinking water. “It’s very dangerous to human health if the groundwater is flowing to where the water is pumped for drinking water wells,” she said. “It can also flow to small streams that could have a devastating impact on aquatic life in streams and lakes.”

Meanwhile, USWAG maintains that the power plants likely aren’t doing that much harm to the environment, if at all. “If they are, we will naturally take the measures necessary to address the release and, if required, would close those facilities in a safe, environmentally sound manner,” said Roewer.

USWAG has an apparent history of having a rather lax attitude to the matter. The group filed a petition for the EPA to weaken existing monitoring and remediation requirements in their coal ash rule last year, describing them as “burdensome, inflexible, and often impracticable.” This petition eventually caused the EPA to announce that it would reconsider certain provisions of the coal ash rule shortly after filing.

Earthjustice said that their analysis has so far not been reviewed by the EPA. For now, Evans believes that the agency won’t change their ruling before March 2, the deadline for power companies to submit their initial groundwater monitoring results. Until then, the outcome will be something to look forward to.

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