New Report Details How Coal Plants Are Polluting Water and Getting Away With It

PITTSBURGH — The location of a former coal-fired energy plant northwest of Pittsburgh is leaking coal ash and poisoning surrounding groundwater, in response to a brand new report.

Coal ash, the fabric left behind after coal is burned, incorporates dangerous substances like arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, lithium, mercury and uranium, amongst others. Publicity is linked to well being results like most cancers, injury to the thyroid, liver and kidneys, and neurodevelopmental issues in kids.

Though coal consumption has declined throughout the U.S., the ability business continues to generate about 70 million tons of coal ash yearly, and after 100 years of burning coal, U.S. energy vegetation have generated about 5 billion tons of coal ash.

The brand new report, printed by the environmental regulation advocacy teams Environmental Integrity Venture and EarthJustice, discovered that 91% of U.S. coal-fired vegetation have ash landfills or waste ponds which can be leaking poisonous chemical compounds and heavy metals into surrounding groundwater at ranges that threaten streams, rivers and consuming water aquifers. It additionally discovered that many coal plant homeowners manipulate knowledge or incorrectly declare exemptions to laws to keep away from having to scrub up contamination.

“Coal vegetation are polluting the nation’s water illegally and getting away with it,” Lisa Evans, a senior legal professional at Earthjustice and coauthor of the report, stated throughout a information briefing. “At the least 91% of them are poisoning our water with hazardous toxics and doing little or nothing to handle it. That is unlawful.”

The report ranks the highest 10 worst contaminated coal ash websites within the nation. GenOn’s New Castle Generating Plant, about 46 miles northwest of Pittsburgh, ranks sixth on the checklist. Groundwater close to the location incorporates arsenic ranges 372 instances greater than the U.S. Environmental Safety Company’s, or EPA’s, security threshold, and lithium ranges 54 instances greater.

Arsenic publicity is linked to a number of types of most cancers, neurological impairments in kids and pores and skin situations. Lithium publicity is linked to kidney and neurological injury, decreased thyroid operate and beginning defects. The GenOn plant sits alongside the Beaver River, which feeds into the Ohio River, which, in flip, gives consuming water to greater than 5 million individuals.

“Along with the Ohio River being an vital supply of consuming water to many People, individuals within the area additionally like to fish, swim and boat out in these waters,” Zach Barber, a neighborhood organizer with environmental advocacy group PennEnvironment, who was not concerned with the report, informed EHN. “This air pollution poses actual dangers that aren’t being taken severely by these corporations or our regulators.”

The GenOn web site, which has roughly 50 acres of coal ash landfill containing about three million tons of ash, is the one location in Pennsylvania to make the report’s high 10 checklist. It follows coal ash dumps in Texas, Nevada, North Carolina and Wyoming (two websites), and ranks worse than websites in Maryland, Mississippi, Utah and Tennessee. Probably the most polluted web site within the nation is the San Miguel Electrical Plant south of San Antonio, Texas. The report, an replace to a 2019 report on coal ash sites, additionally particulars groundwater contamination at 292 further coal vegetation in 43 states.

“Coal ash waste is inflicting widespread water contamination that threatens consuming water provides and the atmosphere,” Lisa Evans, senior legal professional at Earthjustice, stated in an announcement. “In each state the place coal is burned, energy corporations are violating federal well being protections.”

Manipulating Knowledge to Disguise Toxic Air pollution

In 2015, in response to almost 160 circumstances of water contamination and a number of other catastrophic coal ash spills, the EPA established the first-ever laws governing coal ash disposal collectively known as the Coal Ash Rule.

The rule required websites disposing of coal ash to submit groundwater monitoring stories on their web sites. There’s no federal database of those notices, so the authors of the report collected and analyzed the information to create their very own. They concluded that many energy corporations are illegally manipulating knowledge and monitoring to keep away from cleanup necessities.

Corporations are supposed to gather samples from clear background wells that aren’t close to coal ash disposal websites to check towards wells on web site. However they discovered that corporations typically selected beforehand contaminated websites to make use of as background wells, making it more durable to search out proof of coal ash air pollution. Many vegetation additionally go away giant elements of a disposal space unmonitored, use inappropriate statistical strategies to cover patterns of contamination, and falsely attribute the contamination to a different supply, in response to the report.

“Coal plant homeowners are intentionally using methods to cover coal ash air pollution,” Evans stated. “Individuals reside subsequent to those ponds. Individuals drink the groundwater. Households use the lakes and streams subsequent to those ponds. Leaving ash will make individuals sick and hurt the water they depend upon…however pennies over individuals has at all times been the norm the place coal ash is worried.”

Some plant homeowners, together with the homeowners of GenOn’s former New Fort Plant, say the websites had been already contaminated earlier than they arrived, so that they shouldn’t be accountable for cleanup, in response to the report. GenOn’s New Fort Plant landfill was constructed on high of an 80-year-old, 120-acre ash pond, and the corporate is barely claiming duty for a small a part of the landfill, in response to the doc.

“GenOn should apply the Rule to the landfill as a complete,” the report concludes. “This strategy shouldn’t be solely legally required, but additionally widespread sense – there isn’t a solution to restore groundwater on the web site with out addressing the entire coal ash identified to be buried there.”

Pennsylvania Division of Environmental Safety (DEP) spokesperson Jamar Thrasher informed EHN the company helps the EPA’s enforcement of the Coal Ash Rule by checking compliance with reporting necessities and deadlines for closure or upgrades. In 2020, the DEP issued a Discover of Violation for groundwater contamination and requested GenOn to handle it. The corporate agreed, and remediation is underway, in response to Thrasher, who stated the cleanup plan recommends two extra years of groundwater monitoring to find out whether or not the cleanup measures taken thus far have been efficient.

GenOn didn’t instantly reply to a request for remark. It isn’t the one firm avoiding duty: The report discovered that at almost half of the vegetation inflicting contamination, homeowners are usually not planning any cleanup, and most have denied duty. Of the vegetation which have agreed cleanup is critical, solely a handful have cleanup plans in place, and most lack clear timelines and fall in need of federal requirements.

The report additionally notes that the majority coal vegetation are positioned in or close to environmental justice communities (communities which can be primarily made up of low-income residents and/or individuals of shade), and that 70% of coal ash ponds which can be dangerously near groundwater are positioned in communities which can be primarily Black or brown.

How Can We Repair This?

Each state businesses and the EPA have authority to implement the Coal Ash Rule. In a number of states, state regulatory businesses are actively working to implement the rule, in response to Evans, whereas different states depend on the EPA.

The brand new report recommends numerous options, together with elevated federal oversight to cease coal corporations from manipulating knowledge and improperly claiming exemptions, implementing enforceable cleanup schedules, closing loopholes for websites which can be now not operational, requiring testing of consuming water close to coal ash dumps and banning harmful re-use of coal ash (corresponding to utilizing it as a soil substitute).

“The primary place to start out is implementing the foundations we have already got on the books,” Barber stated. “However the one solution to utterly shield individuals from the well being harms of coal is to go away it within the floor and change to cleaner, renewable sources of power.”