US coal-fired power plants are causing contamination of groundwater with toxic pollution reaching unsafe levels as per the first comprehensive analysis report that deals with the consequences of coal ash waste disposal.
Out of 265 US power plants, 242 power plants reported at least one pollutant of unsafe levels while monitoring groundwater. This pollutant derived from coal ash, the residue of coal after burning it for energy. There are not only the unsafe levels of arsenic but also elevated lithium as disclosed in 60% findings. While arsenic is a carcinogen linked to multiple types of cancer, lithium is associated with neurological damage.
As per the data, nine out of every 10 coal plants reported polluting nearby groundwater with minimum one coal ash pollutant and the majority of which found with at least four different toxins at unsafe levels.
“The pollution is basically everywhere you look,” said Abel Ross, attorney at the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP), compiling the analysis based on reports issued by individual power plants. “The major concern is that this could be a problem for decades or centuries because once the pollutants leech from the coal ash into the water, they are hard to get out.”
Roughly three-quarters of all coal facilities in the US included in the analysis and rest are either shut down or exempted from reporting requirements.
Coal ash of around 100m tons is produced each year from American coal plants and about 2bn tons stored in pits of varying quality. As the aging coal ash pits are not lined with a protective substance, the seeping of the ash into streams and rivers is hard to prevent.
The Obama administration made strict regulations concerning the disposal of coal ash after the disaster at the TVA Kingston Fossil Plant in Tennessee in 2008. The rupture of a containment dike spilled ash that smothered a huge area resulting in death and sickness of several hundred people.
The 2015 Coal Ash Rule requires power companies to monitor groundwater from wells near ash dumps and make the data available for the public. The information of more than 550 individual coal ash ponds made available since May 2018.
However, Trump administration erased these regulations. In July, the Environmental Protection Agency extended by 18 months for the industry to use unlined coal ash ponds for dumping.
According to Andrew Wheeler, confirmed as EPA administrator this week, the move would “provide states and utilities much-needed flexibility in the management of coal ash” and save utility companies as much as $31m per year.
“Using industry’s own data, our report proves that coal plants are poisoning groundwater nearly everywhere they operate,” Evans said. “The Trump administration insists on hurting communities across the US by gutting federal protections. They are making a dire situation much worse.”
Groundwater pollution poses a risk to people drawing water directly from backyard wells. However, allowable levels of certain toxins in treated drinking water are too lax and also pose a risk as argued by environmentalists.
Coal ash releases a stew of pollutants including cadmium, chromium, cobalt, and lead, including arsenic and lithium. A range of health conditions is linked to these toxins, like cancers, kidney damage, and developmental problems.
As per the EIP report, the worst contaminated lies next to the San Miguel Power Plant, San Antonio. Coal plants in North Carolina, Wyoming, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Utah, Maryland, Mississippi, and Kentucky are included in the list of the 10 worst polluters.
Although some states like Missouri and Georgia started to act for the elimination of leaky coal ash dumps, the EPA must act faster ensuring they are fully phased out, stated Ross.
“We’ve never really been happy with the EPA’s approach to this, but now it is run by a coal lobbyist we are even more skeptical,” Ross said, referring to Wheeler’s former employment. “Over the long term it’s going to become clear the EPA needs to be stronger and do something, but that probably won’t happen under this administration.”
The EPA was contacted for comment but what action they would take regarding the same remains a question mark.