The Progressive


A project of Common Dreams

For Immediate Release

Raviya Ismail, Earthjustice, (202) 667-4500, ext. 221

New EPA Testing Method Identifies Higher Coal Ash Threat; Must Drive Agency's Rulemaking

Arsenic, among others, leached at 1,800 times federal safe drinking water levels


A new testing method by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
reveals that pollutants such as arsenic, antimony, chromium and
selenium, can leach from coal ash at levels dozens and sometimes
hundreds of times greater than the federal drinking water standard. This
news comes on the heels of EPA's proposal to regulate coal ash, in
which the agency offered two options: a plan to regulate coal ash as
hazardous waste and another to regulate it as non-hazardous.

According to EPA's new testing data, cited in the agency's proposed
rule released yesterday, pollution from coal ash can shatter the
"hazardous waste" threshold, an important factor as the EPA is facing
pressure from industry to avoid defining coal ash as hazardous waste.
The new testing procedure emphasizes the need for the EPA to make the
right decision and choose the stronger of the two proposals for
federally enforceable coal ash safeguards that use the strongest limits
of the law to protect the communities living near coal ash sites.

In December 2009, the EPA produced a report examining the fate of
pollution captured in smokestacks at coal-fired power pants. The report
was quietly posted to the EPA's website, but offered groundbreaking
results. The EPA tested over 70 samples of ash and sludge from numerous
power plants. The results revealed the potential for some ashes and
sludges to release large concentrations of toxic chemicals. According to
new testing methods on coal ash applied by the EPA's Office of Research
and Development:

  • Arsenic, a potent carcinogen, leached from one coal ash at 1,800
    times the federal safe drinking water standard, more than 3 times the
    threshold of hazardous waste and over 76 times the level of previous
    leach tests;
  • Antimony, which causes heart, lung and stomach problems,
    leached from a coal ash at 1,800 times the federal safe drinking water
    standard and over 900 times the level of previous tests;
  • Chromium, which can cause cancer and stomach ailments, leached
    from one coal ash at a level 73 times the federal safe drinking water
    standard, over 1.5 times the hazardous waste threshold, and 124 times
    the level of previous leach tests; and
  • Selenium, which causes circulatory problems in humans and is a
    bioaccumulative toxin extremely deadly to fish, leached from one coal
    ash at nearly 600 times the federal drinking water standard, 29 times
    the hazardous waste threshold and nearly 66 times the level of previous
    leach tests.

"The writing is on the wall, the floor, the ceiling, everywhere,"
said Lisa Evans, senior administrative counsel at Earthjustice. "Coal
ash pollution poses a significant threat to human health and our
environment. The EPA's new testing methods are much more precise and
clearly determine that arsenic, selenium and other pollutants from some
coal ashes pose a toxic threat to drinking water, fish and wildlife
populations, and our health."

Adding air pollution controls to existing power plants is shifting
toxic pollution from the smokestacks to the fly ash, FGD gypsum and
other air pollution control residues commonly referred to collectively
as "coal ash." Increased concentrations of toxic metals in coal ash
increases the potential for them to leach into water.

an Earthjustice report summarizing the EPA's findings

"This new EPA report confirms just how significant the threat is to
aquatic life," said A. Dennis Lemly, Research Professor of Biology at
Wake Forest University. Dr. Lemly is an expert in aquatic toxicology of
selenium. "It shows that selenium quickly moves into water, often at
levels that are thousands of times greater than what is necessary to
poison fish. With this degree of contaminant mobility, concentration,
and toxicity, coal combustion waste, or coal ash, is an extremely
hazardous material."

These new testing methods show that arsenic can leach from coal ash
at 3 times, chromium can leach over 1.5 times, and selenium can leach at
29 times the threshold of what is considered hazardous waste. For
decades, the EPA, state agencies and industry relied on a 1990 leach
test, known as the Toxicity Characteristic Leaching Procedure (TCLP),
which often failed to accurately predict levels of pollutants leaching
from coal ash. For years, the National Academy of Sciences and the EPA's
own Science Advisory Board questioned the reliance on such an
inaccurate testing method for coal ash and explicitly recommended that
EPA replace the old test. In 2006, the EPA itself acknowledged the need
for a more accurate and sensitive test and began using an alternate
framework. The new EPA proposed coal ash rule explicitly states that "a
considerable body of evidence has emerged indicating that the TCLP alone
is not a good predictor of the mobility of metals in CCRs under a
variety of different conditions."

The EPA's new test method provides a more accurate assessment of the
potential of toxic chemicals to leach from the waste, showing that coal
ash pollution is an obvious threat to drinking water and in some cases,
far exceeds the thresholds for hazardous waste.

"Sound science should inform decision making," said Mary Fox, PhD,
MPH, Assistant Professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public
Health. "Reliable scientific testing methods ensure the most accurate
data are available to regulators when they set protective standards. The
EPA's new testing methods clearly show the threat coal ash poses to
drinking water supplies and the communities that rely on them. These
findings provide critical information for establishing coal ash waste
management strategies that protect water supplies."

"The new leaching data is cited in EPA's proposed rule, and this
should end, once and for all, the reliance on a test that has no
scientific basis." Evans said. "The utility industry and coal ash reuse
industries argue that coal ash is not hazardous waste, relying on
obsolete testing methods that are nearly 20 years old. But there is new
science now being used by the EPA that shows unequivocally that some
ashes and sludges behave just like hazardous waste."

Earthjustice is a non-profit public interest law firm dedicated to protecting the magnificent places, natural resources, and wildlife of this earth, and to defending the right of all people to a healthy environment. We bring about far-reaching change by enforcing and strengthening environmental laws on behalf of hundreds of organizations, coalitions and communities.