Power Plants' Coal Ash Reports Show Toxins Leaking into Groundwater

Utilities with ash ponds were required to complete water monitoring this year. Of the first 14 to file reports, 9 had 'significant increases' of toxic substances.

Utilities have petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to weaken the groundwater monitoring and remediation requirements in a federal coal ash rule. Credit: Tony Webster/CC-BY-SA-2.0

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Toxic substances including arsenic may be leaking from unlined pits and contaminating groundwater at hundreds of coal ash storage facilities nationwide, according to an analysis by the environmental law organization Earthjustice. 

The analysis, an initial review of recently released data from 14 power plants in eight states, comes as the Environmental Protection Agency is weighing whether to revise recently enacted groundwater monitoring rules at coal ash storage facilities.

Nine of the 14 power plants noted "statistically significant increases" of toxic substances in groundwater near coal ash containment ponds, Earthjustice found.

"This data tells a story, and the story is alarming," Earthjustice Senior Counsel Lisa Evans said. "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."

The ponds store coal ash, the ash left after a power plant burns coal. Under a 2015 rule governing coal ash disposal, utility companies were required to complete initial monitoring of groundwater near such sites by Jan. 31, 2018, and they are required to make their data publicly available by March 2. Earthjustice reviewed the reports of the first 14 power plants to post their data. About 1,400 such sites exist nationwide, according to Earthjustice.

James Roewer, executive director of the Utility Solid Waste Activities Group (USWAG), a trade association representing more than 100 power companies, cautioned not to make too much of the initial monitoring results.

"We shouldn't be jumping the gun," Roewer said. "This is the first step. It doesn't mean that drinking water is adversely affected."

Roewer said utilities that detected elevated levels of contaminants will conduct additional monitoring as outlined in the 2015 rule to ensure that the facilities are not having an adverse effect on the environment.

"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," Roewer said.

Are People at Risk?

Any threat posed to human health and the environment would depend in part on where the contaminated groundwater flows.

"It's very dangerous to human health if the groundwater is flowing to where the water is pumped for drinking water wells," Evans said. "It can also flow to small streams that could have a devastating impact on aquatic life in streams and lakes."

Initial monitoring conducted by the companies did not assess where the contaminants moved once they entered the groundwater. Of the approximately 1,400 sites nationwide, the vast majority are unlined ponds, Evans said.

Protective liners designed to limit leaks were first required for new ponds under the 2015 rule.

A Push to Weaken Monitoring Rules

Last year, USWAG petitioned the EPA to weaken monitoring and remediation requirements in the coal ash rule. The May 2017 written request described the 2015 rule as "burdensome, inflexible, and often impracticable." In September, the EPA announced it would reconsider certain provisions of the coal ash rule.

The EPA has not reviewed the Earthjustice report and declined comment, a spokesperson for the agency, who asked not to be named, said.

Evans said she doesn't anticipate that EPA will change the rule before the March 2 deadline for companies to publish their initial groundwater monitoring results. Changes that take effect after March 2 could, however, weaken future monitoring and cleanup requirements, she said.  

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