By Paul Napoli
The Injury Board
A new study has identified 39 additional coal ash dumpsites in 21 states that are contaminating water supplies with heavy metals, showing the government is inadequately monitoring these disposal sites and lax at regulating the toxic waste. The study is entitled IN HARM’S WAY: Lack of Federal Coal Ash Regulations Endangers Americans and Their Environment and was released just days before the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) starts a series of hearings across the U.S. to consider regulation of toxic coal ash waste.
Coal ash is a waste material produced during the combustion of coal in coal-fired power plants. A 60 Minutes investigation found that U.S. power plants produce about 130 million tons of waste each year, mostly coal ash. It contains toxic materials such as lead, mercury, cadmium and arsenic.
“Coal ash pollution poses serious health risks,” the report said. “People living near unlined coal ash ponds can have an extremely high 1 in 50 risk of cancer. That is 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.”
You can find out if power plants are disposing of coal ash in landfills or wet ponds near you at The Center for Public Integrity here.
The majority of coal ash is disposed of at some 1,300 sites across the county, mostly wet ponds like the one in Kingston, TN that burst in December 2008 and spilled a billion gallons of the toxic mud into a nearby river, even engulfing homes. An investigation by The New York Times found that most of these sites are unmonitored and unregulated. The ponds can dry up in the sun, making the ash into a fine dust carried by the wind.
The EPA had previously acknowledged 67 problematic coal ash dumpsites. This study identifies 39 additional coal ash dumpsites, plus another 31 sites the EIP found in February, that are contaminating drinking water or surface water with arsenic and other heavy metals. That brings the total number of known toxic contamination sites from coal ash pollution to 137 across 34 states.
“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 of the Environmental Integrity Project’s Coal Combustion Waste Initiative.
“Contamination of the environment and water supplies with toxic levels of arsenic, lead and other chemicals is a pervasive reality at America’s coal ash disposal sites because states are not preventing it. The case for a national regulation setting common sense safeguards for states to meet, such as liners, monitoring and cleanup standards, could not be more persuasive. The need for more direct EPA involvement is clear; leaving enforcement to the same states that have refused to do their jobs for the last 40 years is simply not a responsible course of action.”
Every one of the coal ash dumpsite groundwater monitoring wells, of those equipped with such test wells, had concentrations of heavy metals such as arsenic or lead exceed federal health-based standards for drinking water. At a site in Pennsylvania called Hatfield’s Ferry, levels of arsenic were 341 times the federal standard.
Even more frightening is that large coal ash-generating states such as Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Indiana, Ohio, Mississippi, Missouri, New Mexico and Tennessee require no monitoring by law at coal ash ponds.
“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 of the 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. We’re talking about people’s lives here.”
The first public hearing on the pending EPA coal ash rule is set for August 30, 2010 in Arlington, VA. Additional public hearings will follow in Denver, CO on September 2; Dallas, TX on September 8; Charlotte, NC on September 14; Chicago, IL on September 16; Pittsburgh, PA on September 21; and Louisville, KY on September 28.