A new report compiling nationwide government-mandated coal ash groundwater data has found that more than 90 percent of all coal ash sites, including 16 sites in Indiana, have unsafe levels of at least one or more pollutants.
The study entitled “Coal’s Poisonous Legacy: Groundwater Contaminated by Coal Ash Across the U.S.” was published by the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization based out of Washington, D.C., and Earthjustice, an environmental advocacy group.
The report is the first to use nationwide data made available by a 2015 rule mandating that power companies address coal ash disposal risks and develop and maintain publicly available websites to track compliance.
The Coal Ash Rule was created after a large coal ash spill in Kingston, Tennessee in 2008. The spill flooded more than 300 acres of land and released coal ash into the Emory and Clinch rivers. Soon after, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency began gathering information from facilities managing coal ash throughout the country.
“At a time when the Trump EPA – now being run by a former coal lobbyist – is trying to roll back federal regulations on coal ash, these new data provide convincing evidence that we should be moving in the opposite direction: toward stronger protections for human health and the environment,” said Abel Russ, the report’s lead author, in a statement.
Researchers found that groundwater at 52 percent of coal plant sites has unsafe levels of arsenic, a known carcinogen. Long-term exposure to high levels of arsenic has also been linked to skin disorders, diabetes and high blood pressure.
The report’s authors also found that about 60 percent of coal plants have unsafe levels of lithium, which has been linked to neurological damage.
The report identified the 10 sites with the worst contamination in the country. Although none are located in Indiana, one of the facilities listed is located just across the Ohio River.
The Ghent Generating Station in Ghent, Kentucky reported having groundwater samples with lithium levels 154 times the amount considered safe. Kentucky Utilities Company, which owns the facility, also reports groundwater with 31 times the safe levels for radium, which can cause bone, liver or breast cancer. According to the report, ash ponds at the facility have direct contact with groundwater, increasing the chances of groundwater pollution for many years to come.
“This is a wake-up call for the nation,” said Lisa Evans, Earthjustice senior counsel. “Using industry’s own data, our report proves that coal plants are poisoning groundwater nearly everywhere they operate.”
The report’s authors say that although the 2015 Coal Ash Rule provides more power company transparency, it does have its limitations. Reporting requirements of the rule apply only to coal ash dumps that received coal ash after October 2015 and coal ponds that continued to receive coal ash liquids on or after October 2015.
Power companies are also not required to determine the quality of drinking water in nearby communities. That has had tragic consequences for Hoosiers in Porter and Gibson counties.
Chemicals from a coal ash landfill seeped into drinking water in Town of Pines, Indiana. In 2001, the EPA named the site a Superfund Alternative Approach site. Northern Indiana Public Service Company was ordered to remove coal ash and contaminated soil from the town. Some residents, though, still do not have clean drinking water.
In Princeton, Indiana, Duke Energy had to supply bottled water to residents after finding elevated levels of boron in residential wells located near Gibson Generating Station.
“The findings of this report are disturbing, but unfortunately not surprising, said Jennifer Peters, national water programs director for environmental for Clean Water Action, in a statement. “For decades, coal utilities have been dumping their toxic waste in primitive pits – often unlined, unstable, and near groundwater – while state and federal regulators have mostly looked the other way.”