Are utilities dragging their feet on coal ash contamination?

New report ranks Utah’s Hunter plant No. 9 for pollution associated with ash dumps

Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune File Photo The Sun rises behind steam from a cooling unit at the coal-fired Hunter power plant south of Castle Dale.

A new report by environmental groups highlights how the power-generation sector has failed to properly contain groundwater contamination from coal ash, which is often stored in landfills and ponds near power plants. Coal ash threatens the environment at sites across the country, including Hunter Power Plant near Castle Dale and four other sites in Utah, according to the report.

PacifiCorp’s three-unit Hunter plant is the nation’s ninth-most contaminated coal-ash site, according to the report, titled “Poisonous Coverup: The Widespread Failure of the Power Industry to Clean Up Coal Ash Dumps,” released Thursday by the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) and Earthjustice. The utility’s southwest Wyoming plants, Naughton and Jim Bridger, came in at Nos. 3 and 4, respectively.

A spokesman for PacifiCorp subsidiary Rocky Mountain Power disputed the report’s findings regarding its plants, saying these facilities are not impacting drinking water sources and not violating federal rules.

In the wake of a catastrophic spill in Tennessee, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued its strict Coal Ash Rule, mandating numerous actions to monitor and reduce pollution escaping into the environment. But compliance has been woefully lacking, according to Lisa Evans, a senior Earthjustice attorney who co-wrote the report.

“Most U.S. coal plants are violating the law that requires toxic waste clean up. These plants are making people sick and hurting the environment,” said Evans, who has been investigating coal ash for more than 20 years. “Coal plants are polluting the nation’s water illegally and getting away with it. Industry data compiled in our report establishes that almost every regulated coal plant is poisoning water with hazardous toxins and doing little or nothing to restore it. This is illegal.”

The report is based on industry-reported monitoring data, required under the 2015 rule, compiled on 292 plants across the country between 2015 and 2019. Of these, 265, or 91%, reported levels of various toxic compounds exceeding federal limits, according to the new report.

“It’s rarely limited to a single pollutant. The majority of sites have unsafe levels of at least four pollutants,” said co-author Abel Russ, an EIP attorney.

Coal ash is among the nation’s largest industrial waste streams, resulting in stockpiles today totaling 5 billion tons.

“We continue to generate about 70 million tons of coal ash every year,” Russ said. “This stuff is full of toxic chemicals. There are at least six neurotoxins in coal ash, like lithium. There are five or six known or suspected carcinogens, things like arsenic. And there are a bunch of pollutants that are toxic to aquatic life as well. And this stuff frequently migrates into streams and lakes.”

Ash dumps can continue threatening the environment long after their power stations have been retired, as was demonstrated near the now-empty site of Utah’s Carbon Power Plant, which Rocky Mountain Power retired in 2015.

Torrential rains in 2016 pushed floodwaters through the ash in nearby Panther Canyon, depositing more than 2,000 cubic yards of coal residuals into the Price River just upstream from Helper. That landfill, visible from U.S. Highway 6, has since been stabilized, but the ash remains in the side canyon above the river.

“Most coal ash disposal areas are fairly primitive,” Russ said. “They’re not lined or they’re poorly lined, and it’s very easy for contaminants to escape into the environment. So with billions of tons of poorly managed toxic waste all over the country, you have obviously the potential for a big pollution problem.”

The report acknowledged that most utilities have largely stopped using unlined landfills for newly generated ash, also known as coal combustion residuals, or CCRs. But the report accuses utilities of manipulating monitoring data to make sites appear cleaner than they really are, and thus avoid clean-up obligations.

Along with the report, the groups unveiled an online database called AshTracker providing information on the sites evaluated in the report.

The database’s Hunter entry indicates all 14 of the Utah plant’s monitoring wells show contamination in groundwater above federal advisory levels for lithium, sulfate, boron, cobalt, selenium, molybdenum, fluoride, radium, arsenic and cadmium. Groundwater beneath the landfill has lithium levels 210 times what is deemed safe.

PacifiCorp has installed collection wells to capture groundwater leaching through the waste, but monitoring data suggest they are not working, according to the report.

There is an estimated 16.8 million cubic yards of coal ash in Hunter’s landfill as of 2020 in its 230-acre landfill. The landfill has a 44.5-million cubic yard capacity and will be closed when the power plant retires in 2042.

It’s a similar picture at the nearby Huntington Power Plant, which is ranked 25th on the list of most-contaminated sites.

According to RMP spokesman David Eskelsen, the report and database contain inaccurate and misleading information about that utilities’ plants in Utah and Wyoming.

“PacifiCorp is in full compliance with the federal CCR [Coal Ash] Rule and is actively engaged in the assessment, correction and remediation of groundwater impacts identified under the provisions of the rule,” he said. “PacifiCorp has and will continue to implement the most effective remediation steps at all of its plants, and statements in the report that PacifiCorp is not pursuing cleanup are not accurate.”

In response to the 2015 rule, PacifiCorp sought to acquire 200 acres of public land beside the Hunter plant to expand the existing landfill. The Trump administration granted approval for the land deal in 2019, but in the face of objections raised by environmental groups, the Bureau of Land Management withdrew that approval to conduct additional environmental analysis that has yet to be completed.

The report surveyed and ranked four other active coal-ash repositories in Utah: Huntington Power Plant (25); Intermountain Power Plant (43); Bonanza Power Plant (62); and Sunnyside Cogeneration facility (93).