An in-depth review of monitoring data from coal ash ponds located next to 13 coal-burning power plants in North Carolina has revealed that all of them are contaminating groundwater with toxic metals and other pollutants — in some cases at levels exceeding 380 times state groundwater standards.
The contaminants reported include arsenic, cadmium, chromium and lead — metals known to cause cancer, neurological problems and other serious illnesses.
The analysis was conducted by Appalachian Voices' Upper Watauga Riverkeeper team based on data submitted to state regulators by Duke Energy and Progress Energy, the state's two largest investor-owned electric utilities. The companies conducted the tests as part of a self-monitoring agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
"The results of this data are very alarming, and we now know that some of these ponds have been leaking into the groundwater for years," said Upper Watauga Riverkeeper Donna Lisenby.
"We intend to call for further oversight and clean up of coal ash pond waste to prevent additional heavy metals and other toxins from being released into our groundwater and rivers."
The findings come on the heels of revelations that a coal ash pond in South Carolina is leaking arsenic to the nearby Wateree River.
The 80-acre coal ash waste dump at South Carolina Electric & Gas Co.'s Wateree coal-fired power plant in Richland County is just a few miles upstream from Congaree National Park, South Carolina's only national park and home to the largest tract of old-growth floodplain forest left in the United States.
The leak is also in a rural area where many people depend on wells for drinking water.
J.C. Hare, a consultant working for a farmer who lives near the Wateree plant, told The State newspaper he first noticed the stream of runoff resembling a small creek last month.
It was not the first contamination incident related to the ash dump at the Wateree plant. Arsenic seeping from the facility over the past 15 years has contaminated groundwater beneath the property at levels exceeding the federal safe drinking water standard, and seepage also has been found between the dump and the river. In 2001, state regulators cited SCE&G for violating groundwater standards. But they did not fine the company, which said it would try to reduce the contamination.
Coal ash ponds have become a growing public concern since last December's massive coal ash spill from a Tennessee Valley Authority coal-fired power plant in eastern Tennessee.
A 2007 EPA Risk Assessment, brought to light after the TVA spill, found that people who live near coal ash ponds and drink from wells have as much as a 1 in 50 chance of getting cancer from drinking water contaminated by arsenic, one of the most common and dangerous pollutants in coal ash. Living near such facilities also increases the risk of damage to the liver, kidneys, lungs and other organs.
Three of the waste ponds in the North Carolina analysis border the Catawba River basin, a watershed that provides drinking water to nearly a million residents in the Charlotte region. The state's other river basins impacted by coal ash ponds are the Broad, Cape Fear, French Broad, Lumber, Neuse, Roanoke and Yadkin.
The study documented 681 instances where state groundwater standards were exceeded at the 13 coal ash pond locations. Progress Energy had 428 of those violations, but Appalachian Voices says that's because the company provided more data than Duke Energy.
Because the testing was voluntary, the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources is trying to confirm the results before they determine whether corrective action can be required under current state law, Appalachian Voices reports. State law does not currently require the power companies to clean up the toxic contamination until it extends far beyond the boundary of the coal ash pond.
Coal ash is not regulated by the federal government as hazardous waste, but the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has promised to release new proposed federal regulations by year's end.
(Originally published at Facing South)