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Nearly All U.S. Coal Plants Are Contaminating Groundwater, Report Finds

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When Hurricane Florence slammed into North Carolina last year, concerns grew over whether the flood waters would breach a coal ash pond and contaminate drinking water. Turns out that the state has a much more widespread groundwater contamination issue than that event presented, according to a report out Monday. In fact, all of the United States does: More than 90 percent of coal power plants with monitoring data are contaminating groundwater due to poor regulation of their coal ash waste ponds.

The report, issued by the Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice, analyzes coal ash, a byproduct of burning coal that wasn’t federally regulated until 2015 under former President Barack Obama. Coal ash contains toxic heavy metals like lead, arsenic, and mercury, yet it’s often kept in unlined ponds or landfills that sit beneath the water table or within five feet of it, as this report found.


“That makes it an absolute certainty that they’re going to leak into the groundwater,” Elizabeth Southerland, who directed the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Science and Technology’s Office of Water for over 30 years, told Earther.


The new report analyzed data from 265 plants—about three-quarters of all coal power plants in the U.S.—including more than 550 individual ponds and landfills monitored by more than 4,600 groundwater wells. Based on EPA standards and advisories, groundwater at more than 50 percent of the coal plant sites saw “unsafe levels of the neurotoxin arsenic, which is known to cause cancer. Some 60 percent of the plants also have “unsafe levels” of lithium exposure to which may have neurological side effects.

All this information comes as the EPA works to unravel Obama’s coal ash regulation, which mandated that industry monitor and publish the data that made this report possible. In July, the agency began revising (weakening) the rule to extend the life of some of these ponds and give states more power in managing them. Now the public’s health is at risk, said Southerland.

“The more the Trump administration moves to reduce the requirements for addressing these ponds, the more they’re putting public health at risk,” Southerland told Earther.

Unfortunately, low-income communities and communities of color are the ones likely to suffer the most from this threat as these sites tend to be located near their homes. And the threat won’t go away as long as EPA Administrator (and former coal lobbyist) Andrew Wheeler is in charge, said Southerland. Wheeler was finally confirmed last week despite vehement opposition from environmental groups and democrats.


In the meantime, Southerland is hoping states will work to better regulate the industry. North Carolina, at least, has learned its lesson. In wake of various coal ash incidents, the state is shutting down all its coal ash ponds by 2024.