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Coal wastes contaminate hundreds of sites in US

When the Environmental Protection Agency decided not to regulate coal fly ash in 2000, saying the materials were “non-hazardous,” environmental scientists were aghast, since many coal waste storage facilities had already appeared on toxic waste “superfund” lists and many others were eligible.

By 2007, EPA admitted there was a problem, saying coal waste and fly ash have probably damaged drinking water around at least 135 sites nationwide. Some of the site damage had been known to exist for over 10 years. The problem sites include the Kingston TN plant, location of the Dec. 22, 2008 catastrophic release.

The risk assessment was cited in a New York Times article Dec. 30 as detailing a long list of toxic and hazardous chemicals residing the the coal ash pile in Kingston, including 45,000 pounds of arsenic, 49,000 pounds of lead, 1.4 million pounds of barium, 91,000 pounds of chromium and 140,000 pounds of manganese.

But EPA assessment should have covered even more sites, according to the environmental group Earthjustice, which also criticized the agency for deliberately “reducing the number of proven damage cases by creating a test of proof that is extremely difficult to meet.”

Coal combustion residues, including fly ash and boiler slag, are the second largest waste stream in America, just after household trash. About 125 million tons overall were produced in power plants around the country in 2006. Fly ash use in cement is considered “beneficial,” but is not “sustainable.” By emphasizing the “beneficial” uses of fly ash, the coal and utility industries have managed to fend off regulations for over a decade. The industries have also diverted attention from one of the major external costs of coal — the mess that is inevitably created when coal is burned.

Serious environmental damage is typical around the hundreds of coal fly ash and combustion waste storage plants located near coal fired power plants. The emerging picture is one of a lack of any precautions such as landfill liners or even basic monitoring of water quality.

Several utilities have settled damages recently with residents. These include:

Anne Arundel, MD — Constellation Energy Group is settling with landowners for $45 million after contaminating their water supply by dumping fly ash in a sand and gravel mine near their homes in Crofton and Gambrils, MD. Thirty four residential wells were polluted by the fly ash dump, and testing of residents’ drinking water revealed the presence of arsenic, cadmium, thallium, beryllium, aluminum, manganese and sulfate at levels above safe drinking water standards. The fly ash dump may also threaten the deep aquifer that supplies Crofton’s municipal wells. The class action lawsuit alleged that Constellation has known that hazardous substances linked to cancer and other serious health effects had been leaking into groundwater from the Waugh Chapel and Turner Pit dump sites in Gambrills since 1998, but that residents received no warning of the discharges into the local aquifer and dumping operations were expanded.

Allentown (Northampton County) PA— Delaware River Conservancy and other environmental groups sued when utility PPL spilled 100 millions of gallons of fly ash into the Delaware River in August 2005. Although the Conservancy had legal standing in court, negotiations over the settlement between PPL and the state environmental enforcement agency did not include the conservancy, and forced the settlement to be renegotiated. The conservancy is a group of 200 Delaware riverside residents who live downstream from the are of the Martins Creek spill. PPL claimed it had spent $35 million cleaning up the spill in 2005 and 2006.

• Colstrip, MT — Coal ash ponds built since the 1970s have contaminated residential wells and Castle Rock Lake with heavy metals. Utilities settled with residents for $25 million on May 8, 2008. Ironically, EPA never included this as a proven damage case in its risk assessments.

Other cases are ongoing battlegrounds for citizens against the utilities:

Pines, IN — — — People noticed funny tasting water around April 2000, and by 2002 formed the People In Need of Environmental Safety. A book about the town’s experience was published in 2004. They found that according to official records, a utility coal ash landfill “was known to have the potential to cause groundwater and surface water pollution and that this contamination would pose a danger to nearby residential well users.” Children were particularly at risk according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR, an organization within the Centers for Disease Control), which reviewed the drinking water data for Town of Pines. They expressed concern about “high levels of metals in residential drinking water”. While some improvements were ordered for the landfill, the ultimate solution was to stop using ground water and develop a town water system. “Report: Not in My Lifetime: The Fight for Clean Water in Town of Pines, Indiana (April 2004).” The accompanying description: “It is a story meant to inspire action, not just in Town of Pines, but nationally, to ensure responsible and environmentally safe disposal practices, particularly for toxic coal combustion wastes.”

Pittsburgh, Pa. — A 50 year old fly ash dump collapsed in January, 2005, covering the Forward Township (near Pittsburgh) with fly ash sludge and then fine dust particles in Jan. 2005. The Environmental Integrity Project worked with residents, calling on the EPA and state authorities to intervene and better inform residents of the hazards of dried fly ash residues. The group is sending Pennsylvania residents to Tennessee to help residents cope with cleanup and self-protection issues.

Hyco and Bellews Lakes, NC — Selenium contamination from fly ash runoff in freshwater lakes in North Carolina led to a ban on fishing during the 1980s. Eventually, the utility was forced to stop allowing runoff into the lakes.

Mt Carmel, IN — A cooling lake for Duke Energy’s Gibson power plant was closed to fishing after high selenium levels were detected. In recent years, contamination of water wells was discovered and Duke has apparently been supplying residents with bottled water under an informal agreement.

Newcastle, England — In the 1980s and 1990s, according to a Wikipedia article, around 2,000 tons of fly ash from local incinerators were spread on footpaths around the Byker and Walker districts of Newcastle upon Tyne. Studies found dioxin and furan contamination, but not heavy metals.

Power plants with pollution problems in Appalachian include:

• Seven inactive hazardous waste sites in North Carolina, including:

1. Cape Fear Steam Station, Carolina Power and Light Company (metals found in groundwater)
2. Mayo Steam Plant, HWY 501, Roxboro, CPL (metals found in soil)
3. Spruce Pine, Mountain Laurel Dr., CPL
4. Sutton Steam Generating Station, Highway 421, Wilmington, CPL (metals found in sediment)
5. Weatherspoon Steam Generation Plant, East, Lumberton, CPL
6. Fayetteville Plant, CPL, (organics found in surface water, groundwater and soil)
7. Walnut Cove, Duke Power Co.

• Mitchell WV and Putnam County, WV — Two power plants here have unlined impoundments and show high levels of selenium in downstream water. The Amos plant has “substantial evidence that aquatic life uses are being seriously degraded due to the disposal of fly ash in the headwaters of the creek,” Earthjustice said. Fish containing 58.02 ppm selenium, well above the suggested limit of 4ppm, “should trigger a West Virginia fish advisory,” the group said. Neither site has been listed as damaged by CCWs, but both should be, the group said.

• Oak Ridge, TN — Elevated levels of lead, arsenic and heavy metals were recently found at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s coal fired power plant and ash pond. Deformed fish were found in downstream of the coal ash pond.

• Two additional TVA sites are also responsible for groundwater contamination: the Colbert and Widows Creek plants, both in Alabama on the Tennessee River. The Widows Creek plant has had high levels of lead, iron, manganese, aluminum, sulfates and boron. The Colbert site is over standard for sulfate, chromium, selenium, iron, molybdenum and boron.

• Clinch River, VA — 130 million gallon spill, 1967.

For more information:

See EPA Drinking water standards, 2006 (PDF)

Earthjustice Comments on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Coal Combustion Waste Damage Case Assessment





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