Washington • The majority of ponds and landfills holding coal waste at 250 power plants across the country have leaked toxic chemicals into nearby groundwater, including a 340-acre landfill at the Hunter Power Plant in east-central Utah, according to an analysis of public monitoring data released Monday by environmental groups.
The report, published jointly by the Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice, found that 91 percent of the nation’s coal-fired power plants reported elevated levels of contaminants such as arsenic, lithium, chromium and other pollutants in nearby groundwater.
In many cases, the levels of toxic contaminants that had leaked into groundwater were far higher than the thresholds set by the Environmental Protection Agency for drinking water, the groups said.
Three electrical-generating stations operated by PacifiCorp, parent company to Utah’s largest utility, appear on the report’s top 10 list of most contaminated coal-ash sites, with Hunter near Castle Dale at No. 8.
Data show Hunter’s landfill is an active source of coal-ash contamination, according to the report. Levels of cobalt, lithium and molybdenum in the groundwater there far exceed federal safety standards.
PacifiCorp spokesman David Eskelsen acknowledged high levels of dangerous minerals do occur at Hunter, but he said the plant is nowhere near drinking-water sources and that the groundwater is naturally rich in lithium and other minerals associated with coal ash.
Percolating through Mancos Shale, aquifers there are not fit to drink with or without the presence of heavy industry.
“Environmental responsibility is a corporate value here,” Eskelsen said. “We want to do everything we can to mitigate impacts. We know there are impacts from our operations.”
Other examples span the country. At a family ranch south of San Antonio, a dozen pollutants have leaked from a nearby coal ash dump, data showed. Groundwater at one Maryland landfill that contains ash from three coal plants was contaminated with eight pollutants. In Pennsylvania, levels of arsenic in the groundwater near a former coal plant were several hundred times the level the EPA considers safe for drinking.
The voluminous data became publicly available for the first time last year because of a 2015 regulation that required disclosures by the overwhelming majority of coal plants.
“At a time when the EPA — now being run by a 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,” Abel Russ, lead author of the report and an attorney for the Environmental Integrity Project, said in a statement.
In Wyoming, PacifiCorp’s Jim Bridger and Naughton plants were listed as the nation’s third and fourth-most contaminated sites, respectively, where levels of lithium and selenium were 100 times the safe limit. These plants also showed unsafe levels of arsenic, boron, cadmium, fluoride, lead, radium and thallium.
For groundwater under Utah’s Hunter plant, lithium levels exceed drinking-water standards by 228 times.
According to Eskelsen, however, it would be fairer to compare lithium and metal levels found in monitoring wells against naturally occurring levels.
“If you do that, they are less than one times background levels for lithium for two wells that registered exceedances and in one well for molybdenum,” he said. “That reduces the scary nature of the report.”
Even so, Eskelsen added, PacifiCorp is taking steps to reduce potential environmental impacts by removing groundwater from under Hunter’s coal-ash landfill.
The report acknowledges that the groundwater data alone do not prove that drinking-water supplies near the coal waste facilities have been contaminated. Power companies are not routinely required to test nearby drinking-water wells. "So the scope of the threat is largely undefined," the report states.
However, according to the EPA, nearly 90 million people rely on groundwater for their drinking supplies. Groundwater is also widely used in agriculture for irrigation. Monday's report also details multiple instances, largely in rural areas, in which residential tap water has been affected by coal ash.
Coal ash ranks among the nation's largest industrial waste streams. According to the EPA, in 2012, coal-fired electric utilities burned more than 800 million tons of coal in the United States, generating about 110 million tons of coal ash.
The Trump administration has sought to overhaul portions of the Obama-era requirements for handling the toxic waste produced by burning coal. For instance, the agency last year put in place changes aimed at providing more flexibility to state and industry officials in implementing the 2015 restrictions.
The 2015 regulations, which dictated how coal ash must be stored across the country, were finalized in the wake of two high-profile spills in Tennessee and North Carolina, which collectively contaminated waterways and damaged nearby homes. The Obama administration negotiated for years with environmental groups, electric utilities and other affected industries about how to address coal waste, which can poison wildlife and poses health risks to people living near storage sites.
Changes made under President Donald Trump would extend the life of some existing ash ponds, empower states to suspend groundwater monitoring in some cases and allow state officials to certify whether a facility meets adequate standards. EPA officials estimate that the rule changes will save the industry tens of millions of dollars a year in compliance costs.
The administration also has said it plans to make an additional proposal that would further dilute existing coal ash regulations.
But that effort has been complicated by an August ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which found that parts of Obama-era regulation around coal ash storage were not stringent enough to adequately protect public health. For instance, the court tossed provisions that would have allowed some unlined or clay-lined coal ash pits to continue operating, as long as testing revealed no leaks.
Monday's report, which included information from thousands of groundwater monitoring wells, suggests serious questions remain about the long-term safety of coal ash ponds and landfills that dot the country.
The analysis found that a majority of the country's more than 250 coal plants have unsafe levels of at least four potentially toxic substances, including arsenic, which the EPA has classified as a human carcinogen. In addition, the report found that few coal-ash waste ponds have waterproof liners to prevent harmful substances from leeching into groundwater, and that more than half are built beneath the local water table or within 5 feet of it.
Lisa Evans, an expert on coal ash and a senior attorney for Earthjustice, said in an interview that the findings raise only more questions about the impact of the leaks.
"With all of these, the contamination is really not in dispute. It's the industry's own numbers," Evans said. "The question now is, where is the contamination going? Who's in the path of a plume? Is it people? A waterway?"
Among the most striking examples cited in Monday's report were near the San Miguel power plant located an hour south of San Antonio. The groundwater samples from beneath a family ranch there showed that at least 12 pollutants had leaked from the electric coop's coal-ash dumps.
The report also found that in Belmont, N.C., Duke Energy’s Allen Steam Station’s coal ash dumps were built beneath the water table and had leaked cobalt — which can cause thyroid problems and other health issues at high exposures — into groundwater at concentrations well above those considered safe. The power plant also reported unsafe levels of eight other pollutants.
At recent meetings, some residents have pushed for Duke to remove coal ash from the site.
The issue flared up last year when Hurricane Florence unleashed flooding at coal ash sites alongside Duke Energy's L.V. Sutton power plant, spilling coal ash into the nearby Cape Fear River. The company at one point estimated that flooding washed away the equivalent of more than 150 dump trucks full of coal ash, but further flooding later caused the collapse of a dam separating more ash from the river.
James Roewer, executive director of the Utility Solid Waste Activities Group, which lobbies on coal ash issues on behalf of electric utilities, said the groundwater monitoring disclosures are a sign that the industry is adhering to EPA regulations.
"I'd look at these reports as a visible, public demonstration of the industry working to comply with these rules and protect the environment," Roewer said.
He said that where there is evidence of contamination that exceeds EPA standards, companies are required to take corrective measures. "It's going to be a very public and transparent process," he said. Roewer added that just because contaminants are detected near a coal ash storage site, "that doesn't necessarily translate into people's drinking water being contaminated."
Cleaning up coal ash is costly. In December, a member of the Virginia State Corporation Commission said that it could cost ratepayers as much as $3.30 a month over 20 years — between $2.4 billion and $5.6 billion — to clean up Virginia-based Dominion Energy’s 11 coal-ash ponds and six coal-ash landfills in the state. And five Dominion facilities continue to churn out coal ash.
Monday's report relies on data that was made public starting in March 2018 as required by a 2015 regulation known as the coal-ash rule. The information was collected by a variety of environmental groups including the Sierra Club and Prairie Rivers Network. The data cover 265 coal plants and include more than 550 coal-ash ponds and landfills that were monitored by more than 4,600 groundwater wells.
About a quarter of coal plants did not register data because they either closed their coal-ash dumps before the regulation took effect or because they received extensions or exemptions.
Tribune reporter Brian Maffly contributed to this story.