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Groups ID Toxic Coal Ash Sites in 14 States, Demand Regulations

WASHINGTON, DC, February 24, 2010 (ENS) – Two environmental groups today identified 31 sites in 14 states contaminated with coal-ash waste containing arsenic, cadmium, lead, selenium, and other toxic metals that can cause cancer and neurological damage to humans and poison fish and wildlife.

The report from the Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice released today relies on facts compiled from monitoring data and other information in the files of state agencies. The groups say these facts demand immediate federal regulation of coal combustion waste disposal, which is currently unregulated.

The newly identified coal combustion waste sites are in addition to the 70 sites identified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the wake of the disastrous Tennessee Valley Authority coal ash spill at the Kingston power plant in December 2008 – bringing the total to 101.

“The 100 some damage cases that are now well documented are just the tip of the iceberg,” said J. Russell Boulding, principal, Boulding Soil-Water Consulting, Bloomington, Indiana, who contributed to the report.

“Our experience in compiling these damage cases is that if there are data available on surface and groundwater quality in the vicinity of a CCW disposal area, you will find contamination. How many hundreds more damaged sites are out there waiting to be identified?” Boulding asked.

The 31 sites are located in: Delaware (1); Florida (3); Illinois (1); Indiana (2); Maryland (1); Michigan (1); Montana (1); Nevada (1); New Mexico (1); North Carolina (6); Pennsylvania (6); South Carolina (3); Tennessee (2); and West Virginia (2).

NRG’s Indian River Power Plant near Millsboro, Delaware (Photo credit unknown)

Active coal combustion waste disposal is still occurring at 25 out of the 31 sites.

Arsenic, a potent human carcinogen, has been found at 19 of 31 sites at extremely high levels.

Groundwater monitoring data show the highest arsenic concentrations at NRG Energy’s Indian River Power Plant Burton Island Landfill in Millsboro, Delaware, where arsenic levels were measured at 145 times the federal drinking water standard of 10 micrograms per liter.

At least 26 the sites report contamination that exceeds one or more primary drinking water standards.

At 15 of the sites, contamination has already migrated offsite at levels that exceed drinking water or surface water quality standards. The remaining 16 sites show evidence of severe onsite pollution, the report states.

Jeff Stant, director, Coal Combustion Waste Initiative, Environmental Integrity Project, said, “While the catastrophic spill at TVA’s Kingston plant has become the poster child for the damage that coal ash can wreak, there are hundreds of leaking sites throughout the United States where the damage is deadly, but far less conspicuous.”

“This problem needs an immediate national solution – in the form of federally enforceable standards that protect every community near coal ash dump sites,” said Stant.

Currently, ash and other coal combustion wastes are not subject to any federal regulations.

The Environmental Integrity Project, composed of former EPA enforcement attorneys, and Earthjustice, a nonprofit public interest law firm, issued this report to prod the Obama administration into regulating coal combustion wastes.

The kind of contamination detailed in this report could have been prevented with safeguards such as phasing out leak-prone ash ponds and requiring the use of synthetic liners and leachate collection systems, the report advises.

The EPA promised to close this loophole by proposing new standards before the end of 2009.

But the EPA’s draft rule is stalled at the Office of Management and Budget, where, the report states, “an avalanche of lobbyists hope it will stay buried.”

“The data are overwhelming: these unregulated sites present a clear and present danger to public health and the environment,” said Lisa Evans, senior administrative counsel, Earthjustice. “If law and science are to guide our most important environmental decisions, as EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson has promised, we need to regulate these hazards before they get much worse.”

TVA’s Kingston power plant where a coal ash containment pond broke open on December 22, 2008, spilling millions of tons of ashy sludge. The Emory River is still closed for dredging. (Photo courtesy EIP/Earthjustice)

The damage is not limited to the type of wet ash pond that broke at TVA’s Kingston plant, spilling more than a billion gallons of ashy sludge that is still being cleaned up 14 months after the spill.

No fewer than 13 of the contaminated sites documented in the EIP/Earthjustice report involved dry disposal, including two structural fills that were advertised as “beneficial reuse” of coal ash.

Offsite arsenic levels in ash-contaminated groundwater from the Reid Gardner plant four miles west of Glendale, Nevada have been measured at 31 times the EPA drinking water standard.

Other examples cited in the report include: a Montana drinking water supply poisoned with boron and sulfate that sickened people and had to be abandoned; a mile-long plume of contamination in Florida; mercury contamination of residential wells in Tennessee; and selenium levels in West Virginia surface waters at four to five times what is permitted under federal law.

“Water sources contaminated by coal ash may eventually be cleaned up, but only at great expense over long periods of time,” said Stant. “Injury to human health or wildlife, however, cannot always be reversed. The data are overwhelming, and these 31 sites sound a clear warning that the EPA must heed before much more damage is done.”

Low-income communities are burdened with a disproportionate share of the health risks from disposal of coal combustion waste. A majority of the 31 sites in this report are located in communities that have more low-income families than the national median.

Similar high poverty rates are found in 118 of the 120 coal-producing counties, where coal combustion wastes increasingly are being disposed in unlined, under-regulated mines, often in direct contact with groundwater, the report states.

“The pollution present in this waste is among the earth’s most harmful to aquatic life and humans – arsenic, lead, selenium, cadmium and other heavy metals, which cause cancer and crippling neurological damage,” said Donna Marie Lisenby, Upper Watauga Riverkeeper, Appalachian Voices, and board member of Waterkeeper Alliance, Boone, North Carolina.

“If these poisons can be kept out of the fish we eat, the water we drink, bathe in, and need to survive, simply through regulation,” she said, “then we must take that long overdue step, not only for the sake of our public waters but for humanity’s sake as well.”

Click here to view the report, “Out of Control: Mounting Damages From Coal Ash Waste Sites.”

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