Source: Washington PostSteven Mufson Brady Dennis | March 4, 2019

Material flows out of a flooded coal ash dump at a North Carolina power plant toward the Cape Fear River. (N.C. Department of Environmental Quality/AP)

The vast majority of ponds and landfills holding coal waste at 250 power plants across the country have leaked toxic chemicals into nearby groundwater, 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, the groups said.

The 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.

The report acknowledges that the groundwater data alone does 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 EPA said Monday that it was reviewing the new report and could not yet comment on its contents. But the agency noted that the groundwater monitoring required by the 2015 rule was merely a “first step” in a process intended to assess and address any contamination from coal ash storage sites.

“Where contamination is detected above specified levels, the regulations require the owner or operator of the facility to initiate measures to clean up the contamination,” spokesman John Konkus said in a statement, adding that companies also are required to be transparent about what actions they are taking.

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 dictated how coal ash must be stored across the country and 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.

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