Coal ash is created after coal is burned for electricity, and much of it has been dumped over the years in unlined ponds and landfills. Coal ash contains toxic metals and other dangerous pollutants that can contaminate ground and surface water.
Coal ash waste disasters, like the 2008 collapse of an ash pond at a Tennessee Valley Authority plant that spilled more than a billion gallons of waste into the Emory River, and the 2014 breach of the coal ash impoundment at a Duke Energy plant, which polluted miles of river in North Carolina and Virginia, helped bring about federal regulation of coal ash waste disposal.
The rule doesn’t apply to dump sites that stopped receiving waste before October 2015. But a new report from Earthjustice and the Environmental Integrity Project concludes that 96 percent of coal plants are not planning to effectively clean up coal ash dumps that are covered by EPA’s Coal Ash Rule, established seven years ago.
The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple spoke with Abel Russ, a co-author of the report and senior attorney at the Environmental Integrity Project.
LISTEN to the interview
Kara Holsopple: What does EPA’s coal ash rule require?
Abel Russ: It’s a self-implementing rule, which means every coal plant owner is supposed to follow a series of steps that are laid out in the rule. It starts with groundwater monitoring, and then if you find contamination, it goes through a series of steps that accelerate up to corrective action or clean up.
There are two rounds of monitoring. If you measure some of the indicators of coal ash, which are part of the detection monitoring process, like boron, sulfate, fluoride, calcium, and things like that, and you find elevated levels of those things, you’re supposed to go into the more advanced groundwater monitoring phase, which is called assessment monitoring.
Then you measure for a whole bunch of toxic pollutants that are found in coal ash, things like arsenic, and lithium. And if you find elevated levels of those, you’re supposed to start the cleanup process. What that means is evaluating all of the options in something called an assessment of corrective measures, which is like creating a menu of cleanup options.
Then you’re supposed to select a final remedy at the end of that process and start implementing that remedy. In Pennsylvania, as I understand it, nobody has selected a remedy yet. Nationally, we’re seeing most sites aren’t there yet. So that’s part of the problem that we’re seeing.
Holsopple: According to the report, how are coal plant operators violating or skirting their role to avoid cleaning up these coal ash waste sites?
Russ: There are so many ways, and it varies by site, but one of the most common ways is failing to acknowledge that you’re subject to the rule.
The Newcastle site, west of Pittsburgh, for example, is one we feature in our report because it’s one of the most contaminated sites in the country. They have a huge ash pond that’s sitting there with a new ash landfill on top of it, and they’re only applying the rule to the landfill on top, and they’re ignoring the ash pond underneath because they don’t think that’s covered by the rule.
So when they’re doing the groundwater monitoring at the landfill, they say all the contamination is coming from the ash pond. But we’re not going to do anything about it because it’s not subject to the rule. Turns out it should be covered by the rule because it’s got ash and water in it.
In a situation like that, the term of art in the rule is inactive surface impoundment — it’s what that’s called — and that should be covered by the rule. They should be conducting monitoring, and if they find contamination, they should be doing corrective action.
We see that a lot. Owners pretend that the site is not covered by the rule or they carve a landfill up into different pieces and say only the newest part of it is covered by the rule when really it’s just one landfill and the whole thing should be covered.
Then you see a lot of games with monitoring, like where they put the wells. They might put some background wells that are supposed to show clean background conditions right on the edge of a landfill where they’re likely to be contaminated by the landfill. So that messes up all the statistics. And you don’t see evidence of contamination in the downgrading wells because your point of comparison is artificially high.
Holsopple: You mentioned the site in Newcastle, Pa. that made your report’s top ten worst contaminated coal ash sites. That’s a GenOn site. Why did it make the list?
Russ: We have a ranking algorithm, and what we did was look for the margin between the level of each pollutant and its health-based guideline, which is almost always the same as the groundwater protection standards that are built into the Coal Ash Rule.
So for arsenic, for example, the groundwater protection standard in the rule is 10 parts per billion. That’s the threshold we use. And at Newcastle, we noticed that the groundwater is up to 372 times higher than that. And so it’s that margin — the difference between where it should be and where it is across all the pollutants at a site that are elevated. You come up with a single number, and that’s where the plant ranks.
Because Newcastle has such high concentrations of arsenic and lithium, it ranks very high.
Holsopple: Where did the data in the report come from, and who did the analyses?
Russ: It came from industry reports. Everything we got was from the reports that coal plant owners are required to post on their websites pursuant to the Coal Ash Rule.
We at the Environmental Integrity Project, with sometimes some help from other organizations, collected all of these reports and extracted all the data, which was time-consuming in a lot of cases because it’s just PDF reports that are not really easy to extract data from. Our research office did the analyses.
Holsopple: What are some of the other conclusions that the report came out with?
Russ: I’ll talk about the data very briefly, and then I’m going to shift to the compliance part because there’s this whole other part of the report that’s interesting. That was really a lot of the work that was done by Earthjustice.
From the data, we found that 91% of the coal plants in the country are contaminating the groundwater. That’s probably an underestimate because we generally assume what the owners say about which wells are background, and if there’s more contamination in a background well, we don’t count that.
The majority of power plants in the country have unsafe levels of at least four different coal ash pollutants, which is significant because there’s a big cumulative risk of combined exposure to things. There are several neurotoxins in coal ash. There are several carcinogens. Humans and aquatic life both are subject to accumulative risk from multiple pollutants. So that’s the data side of it.
Then Earthjustice did a great job of compiling all the information about where these power plants are in the compliance pathway. We’ve been going over the data together for several months, but what we’re seeing is that about half of the power plants that are contaminated don’t think that they are. They blame it on something else, or they explain it away, and they think it’s not coming from them.
So then half of them do acknowledge that they’re contaminating the groundwater, and some of those have started the corrective action process. Most of them have started the corrective action process formally.
Only 38 power plants have selected a remedy. And of those 38, about 11 of them have selected a remedy that involves treating the groundwater, which we think is important and required by the Coal Ash Rule.
So out of those 265 plants that are contaminated, maybe 11 of them have gotten to the point where they’ve selected a remedy that’s adequate. But then we still find problems with those 11, except for one. We found one plant in Wyoming that appears to be doing everything adequately.
Holsopple: Is the coal ash rule working at all?
Russ: Yes. And I do want to stress that because there were a few goals of the Coal Ash Rule. One was simply to make data available, and that has been incredibly successful. We have a ton of data that we didn’t have before. So now we know the scale of the problem.
When EPA wrote the Coal Ash Rule in 2015, the agency wasn’t sure how many coal ash ponds and landfills were built into the groundwater where it’s more likely to leak. It’s a huge risk factor. If groundwater is touching the ash, it’s going to constantly suck the metals out of the ash and bring them into the environment.
So it turns out a lot of these units are sitting in groundwater. Newcastle, for example, is in nine or 10 feet of groundwater. That’s great information to have. It’s very important when you think about risk management and closure.
Another goal of the Coal Ash Rule was to close leaking and unlined ash ponds, and that’s also been pretty successful. There are a lot of unlined ash ponds that are in the process of closing. Some of them have closed. Some of them are in the process of closing, and some of them are scheduled to be closed within the next few years.
It’s the cleanup part of the rule that’s really not working yet. I don’t personally put much blame on EPA because I think they crafted a rule that is actually pretty self-explanatory, and it makes sense. EPA has had an enforcement authority all along, and they did start exercising that enforcement authority earlier this year. I think it’s the industry that’s just not following it [the rule] correctly. That’s the big source of the problem.
Abel Russ is Senior Attorney at the Environmental Integrity Project(EIP), and a co-author of their report with Earthjustice, “Poisonous Coverup: The Widespread Failure of the Power Industry to Clean Up Coal Ash Dumps.” EIP also has an Ashtracker tool where you can search industry-reported data about groundwater contamination at coal ash dumps.
The industry responds
We reached out to GenOn but didn’t hear back in time for this report.
Dan Chartier, Executive Director of Utility Solid Waste Activities Group (USWAG) said, “Overall, the EIP report represents a gross mischaracterization of both the CCR [Coal Ash Rule] rule and the industry’s implementation of the rule.”
He said that facilities are not “hiding” contamination, as they must post groundwater monitoring data to publicly available websites, which is the data used in the report.
“The report also falsely asserts that facilities are ignoring contamination and not acting quickly enough,” Chartier said.
He said the Coal Ash Rule requires facilities to address contamination that is identified at the edge of each disposal unit, but that doesn’t mean that contamination has migrated off-site or poses any risk to nearby communities. That point, he said, is left out of the EIP report.