Environmental Groups Target Coal-Ash Dump Sites

Environmental groups have identified more coal-ash dump sites they said are leaking arsenic and other heavy metals into drinking water or surface water sources.

By Patrick Crow, Washington Correspondent

Environmental groups have identified more coal-ash dump sites they said are leaking arsenic and other heavy metals into drinking water or surface water sources.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently held public hearings on its proposed rule to regulate the residue waste from coal-fired electric power plants. EPA said the need for national regulations was emphasized by the December 2008 spill of coal ash from a surface impoundment near Kingston, Tenn.

The proposed rule would require protective controls, such as liners and ground water monitoring, at new landfills. Operators of existing liquid impoundments would have to install liners and would be given incentives to replace them with landfills that store coal ash in dry form.

The report by the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP), Earthjustice and the Sierra Club identified 39 additional coal-ash dumps in 21 states.

A February 2010 EIP/Earthjustice report documented 31 coal ash dump sites in 14 states. The 39 additional sites, plus 67 already identified by EPA, bring the total to 137 sites in 34 states.

The environmental groups said state governments are not adequately monitoring the coal-ash disposal sites and that EPA needs to promulgate strong regulations to protect the public.

Their latest report said at each of the coal ash dump sites equipped with groundwater monitoring wells, concentrations of heavy metals such as arsenic or lead exceed federal health-based standards for drinking water. At the Hatfield's Ferry, Pa., site they said arsenic concentrations were 341 times the federal standard.

Selenium Pollution

A federal judge has ordered Patriot Coal Corp. to set aside $45 million to treat selenium water pollution from two of its West Virginia coal mines.

Judge Robert Chambers of the District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia said Patriot Coal had failed to comply with an earlier court order. He ordered the company to come into compliance with the selenium limits in two and a half years and post a letter of credit for $45 million.

The funds and time would be used to build facilities to treat selenium from the Ruffner surface mine in Logan County and the Hobet 21 mine in Lincoln County.

Ed Hopkins of the Sierra Club said, "This court order is a game changer in our fight to protect streams and communities in West Virginia and to hold coal mining companies accountable for their pollution. This sets the precedent that coal companies can and must treat their discharges of selenium and other toxic pollutants, and state regulators must do more than continually grant compliance extensions."

Selenium is a toxic element that causes reproductive failure and deformities in fish and other forms of aquatic life. It is discharged from many surface coal mining operations across Appalachia and is found in coal ash following combustion.

Dianne Bady, co-director of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, said, "This ruling should make clear to the coal industry and the regulatory agencies that mining coal in high-selenium seams is not economically viable and that the true costs of mountaintop removal mining are higher than the companies want us to think. Let's hope the companies finally realize that they should just leave high-selenium coal in the ground."

The environmental groups also have sued other coal mining companies for alleged discharges of selenium from their mines in excess of permit limits.

Dead Zone Research

Key federal agencies have listed research and policy steps that could help reverse the increasing number of low-oxygen "dead zones" in U.S. coastal waters.

The interagency report noted that incidents of hypoxia -- a condition in which oxygen levels drop so low that fish and shellfish are stressed or killed -- have increased nearly 30-fold since 1960. Incidents of hypoxia were documented in nearly 50% of the 647 waterways assessed for the new report, including the Gulf of Mexico.

The study said federal efforts to stem the tide of hypoxia "have not made significant headway" partly due to increased development and population growth in coastal watersheds.

It said unnatural levels of hypoxia, which occur mostly in the summer, are primarily the result of the discharge of fertilizer nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous into waterways. The nutrients support blooms of algae, which in turn are decomposed by oxygen-depleting bacteria.

Hypoxia has been noted throughout the Gulf of Mexico and the mid- and south-Atlantic coastal regions since the 1980s. The Chesapeake Bay has had summer bouts of hypoxia since the 1950s.

Jane Lubchenco, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said methods to limit hypoxia are improving "but we still have a long way to go to reduce this environmental threat. The discovery of a new seasonal hypoxic zone off the coast of Oregon and Washington that may be linked to a changing climate emphasizes the complexity of this issue."

In other Washington news:

- Complying with a federal court order, EPA has notified Florida that clean water standards for phosphorus are not being achieved in all parts of the Everglades and further reductions of phosphorus pollution are needed in the area south of Lake Okeechobee.

- EPA has ordered the owners and operators of a zinc fertilizer ingredients site in Clark County, Mo., to begin an environmental cleanup. They were: TNT General Contracting, Inc., of Kahoka, Mo.; Webb Minerals, LLC, of Quincy, Ill.; and the Carl and Carol Trump Trust, of Kahoka.

- The agency has ordered the Port of Tacoma to restore wetlands at two locations on the Hylebos Peninsula in the Commencement Bay area of Washington state. The work was done without a Clean Water Act permit.

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