New online database reveals groundwater contamination from coal power plant waste

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WASHINGTON, DC, June 25, 2014 -- According to a new online database of state monitoring results, thousands of groundwater samples near coal ash dumps across the U.S. contain arsenic, lead and other pollutants at levels exceeding federal thresholds for safe drinking water.

The potential contamination of underground drinking water supplies from leaky power plant landfills and waste ponds suggests a need for long-delayed federal regulation, according to Eric V. Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP), a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting public health.

Accordingly, EIP recently launched the new Ashtracker website (www.ashtracker.org). The database contains 39,080 groundwater quality readings at 1,010 monitoring wells near 30 ash waste sites in 16 states from Florida to North Dakota. The 30 sites are a subset of the hundreds of coal ash disposal areas across the country.

EIP will be progressively adding new disposal areas over the coming months. Of the currently listed groundwater monitoring wells, 828 (82 percent) have exceeded EPA safe drinking water thresholds for one or more pollutants in the last four years. The groundwater monitoring wells are usually located on properties owned by power companies, and the risk to public health and the environment will depend on whether contaminants move offsite and into drinking water wells, creeks, or wetlands.

While such information is too often limited or unavailable, some coal plants have already been hit with big bills for cleaning up offsite leaks. For example, the state of Pennsylvania announced in February that FirstGeneration Energy had posted a $169 million bond to cover the cost of cleaning up a contaminated coal ash pond northwest of Pittsburgh.

Schaeffer said the large number of unsafe groundwater readings on the Ashtracker site suggests a need for stronger regulation of coal-ash landfills and ponds, which are often unlined, poorly designed, and inadequately monitored. Later this year, EPA is expected to release long-delayed new standards for the disposal of coal ash.

Ashtracker will help community groups, reporters, and policy makers analyze whether local coal plants are contaminating their underground water supplies and whether the proposed EPA regulations are adequate. The groundwater samples near ash dumps in the Ashtracker database were collected by power companies and reported to state environmental agencies. EIP then collected this information from the state agencies by submitting requests under state "right to know" laws.

About 80 percent of the water quality violations listed in the Ashtracker database are for the most common contaminants: boron (which can cause low birth weight and reproductive disorders), arsenic (a carcinogen), cobalt (which has been linked to health effects on the heart, blood, and thyroid gland), and sulfate (which can cause diarrhea, a major health concern for infants).

Beyond the problem of polluted water leaking out of ash dumps is the related problem of poor construction and structural instability. When coal ash is stored in a liquid form (mixed with water) instead of a dry form, dams and other components of the waste ponds sometimes rupture with catastrophic results to the environment.

One example of this danger was the February 2014 coal ash spill from a Duke Energy waste site into North Carolina's Dan River (see also: "Duke Energy NC coal ash spill signifies third largest in U.S. history"). Another example was a massive spill in 2008 from the Kingston Fossil Plant into Tennessee’s Emory and Clinch Rivers.

See also:

"Environmental Groups Target Coal-Ash Dump Sites"

"EPA Proposes New Rule for Coal Ash Storage"

"New study finds severe groundwater contamination at TN coal plants"

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