Poisoned waters

Catastrophic collapses like the one at the Kingston plant in Tennessee aren’t the only threat posed by unregulated coal ash impoundments. Most of the more than 100 known and suspected cases of environmental damages caused by coal ash that have been documented by the EPA and environmental groups involve contaminants from the ash seeping into nearby groundwater and surface water supplies from impoundments, which are typically unlined.

In fact, a recent EPA risk assessment found that people who live near coal ash impoundments and drink from wells have as much as a 1 in 50 chance of getting cancer due to contamination with arsenic, one of the most common and dangerous pollutants in coal ash. The same risk assessment found that living near coal ash impoundments also increases the risk of damage to the liver, kidneys, lungs and other organs.

And as a consequence of efforts to make burning coal cleaner, new technology to collect airborne coal ash from the smokestacks of power plants has increased the concentration of toxic contaminants in coal ash, heightening its public health and environmental risks.

The dangers of coal ash aren’t just hypothetical — it’s been linked to at least 100 cases of toxic contamination across the country. The following examples were detailed in a recent report by Earthjustice and the Environmental Integrity Project:

  • At Tampa Electric’s Big Bend Station near Apollo Beach in Florida’s Hillsborough County, thallium and manganese leaching from a coal ash dump have contaminated off-site groundwater at levels exceeding federal drinking water standards, while arsenic has contaminated on-site groundwater at levels 11 times above standards.
  • At SCE&G’s Wateree Station in Eastover, S.C., arsenic contaminated groundwater at the site at 18 times the federal drinking water standard, according to the same report. The contamination has migrated to adjacent property and is accumulating in catfish in the nearby Wateree River.
  • Selenium discharges from ash impoundments at AEP’s John Amos Plant along the Kanawha River in Winfield, W.Va. have exceeded the facility’s permit limits, according to publicly available monitoring data, while fish taken from nearby Little Scary Creek have registered selenium levels above what the state considers safe for human consumption. Exposure to excessive levels of selenium over the short term can cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, and over time can result in neurological effects.
  • Arsenic in groundwater beneath Progress Energy’s Sutton Steam Plant on the Cape Fear River near Wilmington, N.C. has been detected at levels as high as 29 times the federal drinking water standard and is migrating off-site, according to state monitoring data. And Sutton is no exception: An independent analysis of state data found that every one of 13 coal ash impoundments located next to North Carolina power plants owned by Progress Energy and Duke Energy that were tested are leaking contamination to groundwater.

Communities can be exposed to the hazardous ingredients of coal ash through means other than the water supply. At Progress Energy’s Skyland plant near Asheville, N.C., dried-out ash from a poorly managed impoundment blew through the air onto a neighboring condominium community, accumulating on residents’ homes, lawns and cars. A lab analysis done as part of the state’s investigation into the incident found that the material contained highly toxic, cancer-causing elements including arsenic, chromium, and radioactive strontium.

Dry coal ash in landfills, as well as the use of coal ash as a substitute for fill dirt in construction projects, have also been proven to cause environmental damage.

The health consequences of the public’s exposure to coal ash can take years to develop, but in some cases the impact has been more acute. For example, leaking coal ash impoundments at PPL Montana’s Colstrip power plant in Rosebud County, Mont. contaminated a well at a nearby Moose Lodge, where members suffered stomach ailments from drinking the water. Fifty-seven Colstrip residents, including members of the Moose Lodge, filed a lawsuit against the company that was eventually settled for $25 million.

“These companies fought every step of the way,” plaintiffs attorney Jory Ruggiero said at the time. “You can’t hide the facts when you’re testing wells and they’re coming up contaminated.”

What’s at stake

These growing public health and environmental concerns — along with the Kingston disaster in Tennessee — have brought the country to a watershed moment in confronting the dangers of coal ash.

The two regulatory alternatives put forward by the EPA this month include stark differences. Both proposals would regulate coal ash under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, the primary federal law governing solid waste. But one option would regulate it more strictly as a “special waste” under RCRA Subtitle C, which governs hazardous waste, while the other would regulate it less strictly under RCRA Subtitle D, which applies to ordinary waste. Regulating coal ash under RCRA Subtitle C would give EPA clear enforcement authority, while placing it under Subtitle D would give EPA the power only to set guidelines for managing coal ash, leaving oversight programs to the states and enforcement to citizen lawsuits.

Energy companies have lobbied fiercely against treating coal ash as hazardous waste, arguing that such an approach would be too costly and would discourage efforts to recycle coal ash into other products. Meanwhile, environmental groups make the case that coal ash is clearly hazardous and should be treated that way under law.

With the EPA now putting the future of coal ash regulation up for public debate, environmental advocates like Scott Slesinger, legislative director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, say citizens must speak up if they want to avoid another tragedy like the one that devastated the lives of Penny and Evyn Dodson and their neighbors.

“The catastrophic failure of the dam in Kingston, Tenn. finally got the nation’s attention to regulate toxic coal ash,” said Slesinger. “We learned in Kingston, as we recently learned in the Gulf, that catastrophic failures associated with dirty carbon happen with tragic results.”

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TOMORROW: Disaster in East Tennessee: It’s been nearly a year and a half since the massive TVA coal ash spill. But for communities touched by the spill, it’s an ongoing catastrophe.

Sue Sturgis is an investigative reporter and editorial director of Facing South. This piece is the first installment in an in-depth, week-long series on the growing national problem of coal ash and the political battle over regulations.