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Nationwide report finds groundwater pollution at hundreds of coal plants

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Nationwide report finds groundwater pollution at hundreds of coal plants

Nearly all of the nation's coal-fired power plants subject to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rule have contaminated groundwater with coal ash pollution, a March 4 report found.

The report — produced by the Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice also describes alleged loopholes in the rule while raising questions about how electric utilities plan to close hundreds of coal ash storage sites across the country.

Data covering 265 coal plants, or roughly three-quarters of all coal plants across the U.S., show that 91% of those plants have leaked unsafe levels of one or more coal ash constituents into underlying groundwater, the report found. The analysis further determined that groundwater at 52% of coal plants has unsafe levels of arsenic, a cancer-causing carcinogen, and 60% of groundwater at coal plants has unsafe levels of lithium, a neurotoxin.

The groups compiled the report using public filings mandated by the EPA's 2015 Coal Combustion Residuals, or CCR, rule, which set the first-ever national standards for the safe storage and handling of coal ash residuals.

Coal ash is one of the largest industrial waste streams in the U.S. In 2012, more than 470 electric utilities with coal-fired generation burned over 800 million tons of coal, generating approximately 110 million tons of coal ash residuals, according to the EPA.

Coal ash is generally stored in dry landfills or mixed with water and sluiced into wet surface impoundments known as ash ponds. Most coal ash ponds were traditionally lined with a clay barrier that allows toxic pollutants to leach into the underlying groundwater, which the EPA found can harm public health and wildlife by contaminating aquifers and nearby surface waters.

Widespread contamination

Under the CCR rule, coal plants operators with landfills or ponds still receiving coal ash residuals after the regulation was finalized in October 2015 were required to conduct groundwater assessment tests and start posting the initial results to public-facing websites by March 2018. The Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice have used the data to release a string of reports analyzing individual states, but the March 4 report offers their first detailed nationwide look at groundwater pollution caused by coal ash.

In total, the groups analyzed public filings for 550 individual coal ash ponds and landfills that are monitored by over 4,600 groundwater monitoring wells. "The first takeaway is that virtually all of the plants are contaminated," Abel Russ, a senior Earthjustice attorney who co-authored the report, said in an interview.

The report also identified the 10 sites with the worst contamination in the country. The San Miguel coal-fired power plant operated by the San Miguel Electric Cooperative Inc. in Texas ranked first with 12 different pollutants. Groundwater testing at a family ranch near the plant showed lithium concentrations more than 100 times above safe levels. NRG Power Midwest's New Castle power plant in Pennsylvania, which was converted to natural gas in 2016, ranked fifth with arsenic levels in underlying groundwater at 372 times the safe levels for drinking, the report found.

The CCR rule requires coal ash storage sites to initiate closure by October 2020 if they violate a range of safety requirements, including groundwater exceedances. Closure can be performed by fully excavating all of the ash or capping it in place using a protective liner.

However, Russ noted, the rule does not cover landfills or ponds that stopped receiving coal ash residuals before the regulation's October 2015 implementation date. And determining how many of those so-called "legacy" storage sites exist is nearly impossible because utilities are not required to acknowledge them, he said.

Russ said most coal plants have some mix of regulated and unregulated coal ash storage sites. "No matter how aggressive you are about the regulated ash dumps, you're not really going to restore groundwater quality unless you deal with all of the coal ash at every site," he said.

The issue gained added complexity when the Trump administration in July 2018 issued a number of revisions to the CCR rule, including extending the deadline for storage sites to initiate closure. Environmental groups have challenged the move in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

Meanwhile, a recent analysis by the environmental consulting firm AECOM and data analytics company FirmoGraphs found that roughly 85% of the acreage devoted to coal ash storage nationwide, or approximately 17,000 out of 20,000 acres, will be required to initiate closure in 18 months due to the CCR rule.