Report: Arsenic From Coal Ash Disposal Sites Leaching Into Groundwater

Sun, 2011-12-18 16:19Farron Cousins
Farron Cousins's picture

Report: Arsenic From Coal Ash Disposal Sites Leaching Into Groundwater

The Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) has released a startling report showing that coal ash dumps near coal-burning power plants are leaching arsenic and other toxic chemicals into water supplies. The new report identifies 20 new sites in 10 different states where coal ash is contaminating water supplies. These sites are in addition to the 33 coal ash disposal sites that EIP identified earlier this year that are contaminating water supplies.

From an EIP release:

EIP has identified a total of 20 additional coal ash dump sites causing groundwater and soil contamination in 10 states – Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Nevada, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas. These include 19 sites where coal ash appears to have contaminated groundwater with arsenic or other pollutants at levels above Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCL). All but two have also measured concentrations of other pollutants – such as boron, molybdenum, and manganese – above EPA-recommended Health Advisories for children or adults. In addition, our report includes new information about 7 previously recognized damage cases, including stunning evidence of groundwater more toxic than hazardous waste leachate.

After EPA documented 67 proven or potential ‘damage cases’ in 2007, we found groundwater or surface water contamination at 70 additional sites, and submitted our analysis to EPA in two reports released in February and August of 2010. The current report brings the total number of damage cases identified by EPA and other groups to 157.

The EPA takes arsenic contamination very seriously (at least they claim to), and they have an entire section of their website devoted to the dangers of arsenic. From the EPA’s own website:

Human exposure to arsenic can cause both short and long term health effects. Short or acute effects can occur within hours or days of exposure. Long or chronic effects occur over many years. Long term exposure to arsenic has been linked to cancer of the bladder, lungs, skin, kidneys, nasal passages, liver and prostate. Short term exposure to high doses of arsenic can cause other adverse health effects, but such effects are unlikely to occur from U.S. public water supplies that are in compliance with the arsenic standard.

Non-cancer effects can include thickening and discoloration of the skin, stomach pain, nausea, vomiting; diarrhea; numbness in hands and feet; partial paralysis; and blindness.

But arsenic is not the only dangerous  threat to our water supply from coal ash. From a DeSmogBlog report earlier this year:

The group Public Employees for Environmental Protection (PEER) has also done studies showing that coal ash contains toxic levels of mercury.

Loaded with dangerous toxic substances, the amount of coal ash produced in a single year is reported to contain 44 tons of mercury, 4601 tons of arsenic, 970 tons of beryllium, 496 tons of cadmium, 6275 tons of chromium, 6533 tons of nickel, and 1305 tons of selenium.

Scientific American also reports that in many instances, the coal ash produced by coal plants is actually more radioactive than nuclear waste. actually releases 100 times more radiation into the surrounding environment than a nuclear power plant producing the same amount of energy.[clarification added to reflect SciAm Editor's note.]

In addition to their new report, EIP has also delivered letters to Congress from thousands of residents living near toxic coal ash disposal sites, urging the government to do their job and ensure the safety of U.S. citizens by monitoring coal ash disposal.

However, the EPA has known about the dangers of coal ash for years now, but has essentially left the substance unregulated. The reason behind the lack of action on coal ash is quite clear once you follow the big money lobbyists. From DeSmogBlog’s Brendan DeMelle:

The coal industry’s influence on the process was largely peddled behind the scenes, beginning over a year ago, when lobbyists representing coal ash producers and users started swarming the White House to protect the coal industry from full responsibility for the potential health and water threats posed by coal ash waste.

The lobbyists’ ability to quickly and easily gain access and influence over the White House’s review of this critical environmental regulation calls into serious question President Obama’s campaign pledge to limit the role of lobbyists in federal decision-making.

Between October 2009 and April 2010, coal industry representatives held at least 33 meetings with White House staff on the coal ash issue, almost three times as many meetings as environmentalists and university scientists were granted on the subject.

Not only has the EPA failed to take action on coal ash, but they’ve actually been promoting its use for some time. According to an Inspector General report earlier this year, the agency promoted the use of toxic coal ash without even considering the risks and health hazards that the substance posed. This coal ash promotion began during the Bush administration.

The EPA’s failure to act on regulating coal ash has allowed coal industry-friendly members of Congress to jump on the issue. In July, House Republicans proposed a bill that would prevent the agency from being able to regulate coal ash as a toxic substance.

Given the EPA’s history with coal ash, and the coal industry’s powerful lobbying machine, the new EIP report and their letters to Congress are likely to fall on deaf ears. This is incredibly unfortunate for those people who have to live in arsenic-contaminated areas, who rely on agencies like the EPA to make sure their water won’t give them cancer thanks to reckless industrial pollution.

Previous Comments

This article contains at least one false statement.  For example:  ”Scientific American also reports that in many instances, the coal ash produced by coal plants is actually more radioactive than nuclear waste.”  The linked Scientific American is titled as such and originally said this, but it was later corrected to say:  ”In fact, the fly ash emitted by a power plant—a by-product from burning coal for electricity—carries into the surrounding environment 100 times more radiation than a nuclear power plant producing the same amount of energy.”  This change was well documented in the editors note at the end of the article.

thanks, not 'more radioactive.' I just re-read the SciAm piece and the Editor's note, and RobH, we will clarify Farron's statement as follows. 

Original:

Scientific American also reports that in many instances, the coal ash produced by coal plants is actually more radioactive than nuclear waste. 

Clarification:

Scientific American also reports that in many instances, the coal ash produced by coal plants actually releases 100 times more radiation into the surrounding environment than a nuclear power plant producing the same amount of energy. 

Read the entire SciAm note:


*Editor's Note (posted 12/30/08): In response to some concerns raised by readers, a change has been made to this story. The sentence marked with an asterisk was changed from “In fact, fly ash—a by-product from burning coal for power—and other coal waste contains up to 100 times more radiation than nuclear waste” to “In fact, the fly ash emitted by a power plant—a by-product from burning coal for electricity—carries into the surrounding environment 100 times more radiation than a nuclear power plant producing the same amount of energy.” Our source for this statistic is Dana Christensen, an associate lab director for energy and engineering at Oak Ridge National Laboratory as well as 1978 paper in Science authored by J.P. McBride and colleagues, also of ORNL.

As a general clarification, ounce for ounce, coal ash released from a power plant delivers more radiation than nuclear waste shielded via water or dry cask storage.

mercury as well?

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