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Study of Coal Ash Sites Finds Extensive Water Contamination

Renee Schoof

This image may be the most iconic in recent memory when it comes to coal ash. On Christmas Eve, 2008 a coal ash pond dam broke and sent a wave of toxic coal ash flowing into the town of Kingston, Tennessee. A new report, however, shows that even contained, stored ash can have lead to water contamination and negative health impacts.

WASHINGTON — A study released on Thursday finds
that 39 sites in 21 states where coal-fired power plants dump their coal
ash are contaminating water with toxic metals such as arsenic and other
pollutants, and that the problem is more extensive than previously

The analysis of state pollution data by the
Environmental Integrity Project, the Sierra Club and Earthjustice comes
as the Environmental Protection Agency is considering whether to impose
federally enforceable regulations for the first time. An alternative
option would leave regulation of coal ash disposal up to the states, as
it is now.

The EPA will hold the first of seven nationwide
hearings about the proposed regulation Monday in Arlington, Va. A public
comment period ends Nov. 19.

The electric power industry is lobbying to keep regulation up to
individual states. Environmental groups say the states have failed to
protect the public and that the EPA should set a national standard and
enforce it.

"This is a huge and very real public health issue for
Americans," said the director of the study, Jeff Stant of the
Environmental Integrity Project. "Coal ash is putting drinking water
around these sites at risk."

EIP is a nonpartisan organization that advocates for enforcement of environmental laws.

people ask, is there a problem EPA should address, this report answers,
'Yes' with an exclamation mark," said Lisa Evans, an attorney for the
environmental law firm Earthjustice.

Evans said that the state
regulation hasn't protected people living near the waste sites from
health problems. Many states have allowed the dumps to be built without
adequate liners or monitoring and have done little when contamination
was discovered, she said.

Of the 39 sites analyzed, 35 had
groundwater monitoring wells on the grounds of the waste disposal area.
All of them showed concentration of heavy metals such as arsenic and
lead that exceeded federal health standards.

The other four had
only water monitoring data from rivers or lakes where the waste sites
discharged water. Scientists found contamination that damaged aquatic

The new report, following a previous study by the
environmental groups and EPA's own tally, brings the number of
contaminated coal waste sites to 137 in 34 states.

report specified the amount of arsenic, cadmium, lead, selenium and
other pollutants found at each site. The pollutants are linked to
cancer, respiratory diseases and other health and developmental

Most states don't require monitoring of drinking water
near the waste sites. The study found five sites where monitoring
figures were available, and all of them had some contamination. In four,
tests showed problems at one or more drinking-water wells. In Joliet,
Ill., where the information was too limited for analysis, at least 18
nearby wells were closed because of boron contamination, the report

The U.S. burns more than 1 billion tons of coal a year to
generate about half of the nation's electricity. It ends up with at
least 125 million tons of coal waste, including ash and the sludge left
from scrubbers that remove air pollutants.

Federal enforcement of
coal-ash disposal rules would mean classifying the waste as hazardous.
Opponents have argued that this would add costs and make it harder to
recycle some of the waste to help hold down disposal costs.

report from the environmental groups said that more than a third of the
reused coal ash is for structural fill or to fill up empty mines. The
report said those uses could result in water contamination.


Report on coal ash contamination at 39 sites

EPA information on coal ash and details of its proposals for future regulation.

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