Coal Ash/Groundwater Contamination – Report: 33 Active Toxic Dumps in 19 States Endangering Water

A large number of active coal ash disposal sites in 19 states may be violating a federal ban on open dumping, according to a major new analysis released today by the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP).  Ironically, a House Subcommittee voted yesterday to prohibit federal enforcement action against coal ash disposal sites that violate these rules.

EIP found levels of groundwater contamination at 33 coal ash landfills or impoundments nationwide that are high enough to trigger the “open dumping” provisions of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). Based on a review of recent (though limited) groundwater monitoring data from state agencies, the 33 active coal ash disposal sites in 19 states — Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, North Carolina, North Dakota, Nebraska, Nevada, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Texas — meet the open dumping criteria for one or more of the following coal ash-related pollutants: arsenic, barium, cadmium, chromium, fluoride, lead, mercury, and selenium.

This list includes chemicals that cause cancer, neurological damage, developmental problems, and other diseases. Groundwater that meets the open dumping criteria is toxic and unsafe to drink.

EIP Director Eric Schaeffer said:  “EPA put rules in place in 1979 that should have forced closure or cleanup at contaminated sites long ago.  Because EPA was prohibited by law from cracking down on open dumping violations, they have been largely ignored by industry, so the pollution continues to this day, and in some cases has gotten worse.  Reenacting this charade by creating another ‘imaginary program’ – as the House Subcommittee on Energy and Power just did on June 21 – is pointless, and won’t do anything to protect people who live near these dumps.  If Congress is going to pass another law, they ought to make it enforceable, or stop wasting taxpayers’ money on make-believe programs.”

The existing “open dumping” rules were adopted in 1979 under Subtitle D of RCRA.  The Environmental Protection Agency is prohibited from enforcing these requirements, and states receive no funds to implement these standards. The regulations require the closure or clean-up of dumps that pollute groundwater above certain drinking water limits, unless a State can show that the contamination will not affect actual or potential sources of drinking water.

EIP evaluated groundwater data for arsenic, barium, cadmium, chromium, fluoride, lead, mercury, and selenium at the limited number of sites that required monitoring of these toxins.

Key report findings include the following:

* Arsenic is a potent carcinogen that can also cause neurotoxicity and other health effects. The current Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) for arsenic is 10 parts per billion (ppb), but a decades-old 50 parts per billion  (ppb) standard is still in effect under the open dumping regulations. At least 20 sites show arsenic levels higher than the outdated 50 ppb limit. These arsenic spikes can be found in Alabama, Florida, Iowa (two sites), Illinois (four sites), Indiana, Louisiana, North Carolina (three sites), Nevada, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania (two sites), and South Dakota. Maximum arsenic readings at 10 of these sites have exceeded 100 ppb.

* Selenium is an essential element at low doses, but shows signs of toxicity, including hair and nail loss and nervous system effects, at higher doses. The outdated standard for selenium in the open dumping regulations is 10 ppb. As the science of selenium toxicity has changed, however, the standard has been revised upward, and the current MCL is 50 ppb. At least 10 sites show selenium above this 50 ppb threshold, with 9 sites having maximum concentrations of more than 100 ppb.

Lead is a notorious neurotoxin, and it has also been identified by the EPA as a probable carcinogen. The open dumping limit for lead is 50 ppb, more than three times the limit in effect today. But at least six sites show lead concentrations higher than 50 ppb, with half of these reaching maximum concentrations greater than 100 ppb.

EIP Attorney and report author Abel Russ said:  “Clean, drinkable groundwater is an essential natural resource. We know that major aquifers have been depleted or polluted and that in many places the availability of fresh water is declining. The remaining clean sources of groundwater must be protected with the full force of the law.”

Although there are hundreds of coal plants in the United States, groundwater monitoring data are rarely available. The 33 known “open dumps” are therefore expected to represent a much more widespread problem.

Beyond examining possible RCRA violations, the EIP report also finds that groundwater contamination from coal ash is a long-lasting problem.  One facility examined in the report stopped dumping coal ash in its landfill in 1977, but groundwater around the site is still contaminated today.

To access the full EIP report: “Toxic Waters Run Deep: Coal Ash Open Dumps Still Open for Business?”, go to