Widespread groundwater contamination has been found near sites storing coal ash in North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Texas, and West Virginia, among others. Coal ash is the toxic result of coal being burned to generate electricity. Coal ash is the material that collects at the bottom of a furnace as coal burns. While what’s in found in coal ash will vary somewhat based on where the coal is mined, you’ll typically find the following elements in coal ash:
Pervasive Contamination at Coal Sites
According to a report by the Environmental Integrity Project, Earthjustice, and other environmental groups, “Unsafe levels of arsenic, lithium and other pollutants were found in groundwater monitoring wells near coal ash storage sites used by 91 percent of the 265 coal power plants reporting the information.” That means that toxins have been found at nearly all industry-tracked coal power plants. Over 550 coal ash ponds and landfills were included in this most recent report. Fewer than 5% of coal ash waste ponds have waterproof liners strong enough to meet federal requirements and keep toxic waste from seeping into aquifers, according to the Environmental Integrity Project.
The comprehensive report examined the potential dangers of coal ash ponds and landfills. The information comes from groundwater monitoring data coal plants are required to disclose under an Obama-era regulation—and one of the many environmental mandates the Trump Administration has attempted to weaken.
Some specific instances of groundwater contamination included in the report:
- Unsafe groundwater levels of arsenic were recorded near sites used by over half of the plants examined—52% to be exact. Arsenic is a neurotoxin that even at low levels can impair a developing child’s brain and cause cancer.
- Coal ash sites of 60% of the coal plants in the report had unsafe levels of lithium in the water near their coal ash sites. Lithium may cause nausea, diarrhea, dizziness, muscle weakness, and fatigue; over time, more serious symptoms may develop.
There’s an estimated 140 million tons of coal ash generated every year in the United States, and arsenic is one of the most common and most dangerous toxins in the material. At this time, coal ash is disposed at nearly a thousand sites across the United States, and only Rhode Island, Vermont and Idaho do not have coal ash ponds or landfill.
Loosening the Reins
Instead of weakening environmental regulations, as has been the case since 2016, this new data provides “convincing evidence the this country should be moving to enact stronger protections,” not weaker, said Abel Russ, the report’s lead author. The Trump Administration revised the 2015 Obama requirements so the coal industry would be able to stash coal ash in unlined ponds even longer.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), under Trump, also gives “states and utilities more flexibility in deciding when to clean up their coal ash ponds” and contamination. Even more surprising is that with new EPA regulations on coal ash, “state regulators also can suspend groundwater monitoring mandates for some coal ash disposal sites and are empowered to certify whether the facilities are adequate.”