Owners Release Water Pollution Data as Trump’s EPA Announces Proposal to Weaken 2015 Coal Ash Rule Requiring Disclosure
Washington, D.C. — Today the owners of coal ash dumps across the U.S. were finally required to make groundwater monitoring data available to the public, pursuant to the requirements of a 2015 federal regulation meant to reduce water pollution from coal-fired power plants.
The new data show widespread groundwater contamination, threatening public health and the environment across the country (for examples in Illinois, Alabama, Maryland, Florida, and Nevada, see below). The data also hint at a much larger problem. A database called Ashtracker maintained by the Environmental Integrity Project documents and maps coal ash pollution data over several years and shows that groundwater cleanup will require more, not less, EPA oversight.
The case studies described below compare the two data sets (one available on the websites of power companies and other owners and operators of ash waste sites based on the 2015 rule’s requirements; and the other available through EIP’s Ashtracker site and obtained primarily from state agency files). The examples highlight the benefits and the limitations of the Coal Ash Rule requirements. Specifically:
- Many legacy impoundments—inactive ponds (that stopped receiving waste before the effective date of the rule of October 19, 2015) at inactive plants (no longer burning coal)—are still leaking large quantities of toxins that are contaminating groundwater. Despite the fact that the data presented on Ashtracker shows evidence of pollution above safe levels at these legacy sites, the data are not required to be disclosed to the public, and the ash is not required to be cleaned up, under the 2015 Coal Ash rule.
- Similarly, the 2015 rule does not cover most inactive landfills, yet Ashtracker provides evidence of extensive groundwater pollution above health-based levels from this units throughout the nation.
- Even using only the more narrow 2015 CCR Rule data, evidence of groundwater contamination is extensive. However, comparisons with the Ashtracker data make plain that a revision to EPA’s rule to expand the rule’s covered units would capture many more polluted sites and protect many more communities from exposure to arsenic, cadmium, and other toxic coal ash contaminants. Despite this, EPA has just announced a proposed rule revision that would do the exact opposite—allowing for reduced monitoring and cleanup requirements.
The 2015 Coal Ash Rule is a small step toward better public health protections for neighbors of coal ash dumps. Just as the rule begins to produce results, however, the EPA under administrator Scott Pruitt announced this week that is planning to dismantle the regulation, giving coal plants the green light to pollute our drinking water supplies and waterways.
On March 1, EPA proposed a rollback of the Coal Ash Rule, a rule thirty years overdue, which the EPA issued in response to a lawsuit from a coalition of groups including the Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice. Coal ash, which contains toxic heavy metals like arsenic, cadmium, and chromium, has historically been stored in largely unregulated, unlined ash dumps. There are roughly 1,400 of these dumps across the country, often leaking toxic pollution into groundwater and surface water.
The Coal Ash Rule created new protections by, for example, requiring the closure of leaky unlined coal ash ponds and establishing federally-applicable groundwater monitoring, closure, and clean-up requirements. EPA’s latest proposed rollback would effectively gut many of the rule’s key protections and take us back to the dark ages of dangerous, unregulated coal ash disposal.
Burning coal at power plants produces a toxic byproduct known as “coal ash.” Until recently, most coal ash was dumped in unlined pits, allowing heavy metals and other pollutants to escape into local groundwater and surface water. The Obama-era Coal Ash Rule requires the owners of these ash dumps to monitor local groundwater and, if they find contamination, to take corrective action. The rule was published in 2015, but the requirement to make groundwater monitoring data available to the public only kicked in this week.
The Coal Ash Rule does not require groundwater monitoring at all coal ash dumps: Most old and inactive landfills and other impoundments are exempt. But the rule does shine a new light on at least some ash dumps, and could lead to cleanup efforts that will protect important sources of drinking water.
There are other sources of data. The Environmental Integrity Project has been maintaining a database of groundwater data near certain coal ash sites for several years on its Ashtracker website. The Ashtracker database covers fewer coal plants, but it does include ash dumps that are not regulated by the Coal Ash Rule.
Comparing the two sets of data shows that much of the contamination at each site comes from these older, unregulated dumps.
Case Study No. 1. ILLINOIS: Will County Generating Station.
The Will County station is located in Romeoville, Illinois and is owned by a subsidiary of NRG Energy. In order to comply with the Coal Ash Rule, the site is monitoring six wells around two on-site coal ash ponds. The Coal Ash Rule report includes data from 2015 through 2017. All six wells, including the allegedly “upgradient” wells, show clear evidence of coal ash contamination, with elevated levels of coal ash indicators like boron and sulfate. The fact that the upgradient wells are contaminated shows that either the ponds are leaking radially – in all directions – or that there are upgradient sources of coal ash. In fact, Illinois citizens’ groups have found evidence of large quantities of coal ash buried around the ash ponds, and around the upgradient wells.
The Coal Ash Rule report also shows that the groundwater is unsafe. Specifically, one or more wells in the report show unsafe levels of arsenic, boron, molybdenum, and/or sulfate.
The Ashtracker database for Will County includes a larger network of ten monitoring wells, with data from 2010 through 2015. Although the owner of Will County believes that only two on-site ponds are regulated by the Coal Ash Rule, there are actually four on-site ash ponds. The ten monitoring wells shown in Ashtracker surround the four ash ponds. Nine of these ten wells have unsafe levels of one or more pollutants, including antimony, arsenic, boron, manganese, selenium, and sulfate (there were no molybdenum data for the time period covered by Ashtracker).
In short, the Coal Ash Rule report for Will County identifies groundwater contamination around two coal ash ponds. The source of the contamination is the ponds themselves and/or the coal ash buried around the ponds. Data on EIP’s Ashtracker website shows more extensive contamination surrounding a total of four on-site ash ponds. Again, at least some of this contamination appears to be coming from sources that the Coal Ash Rule does not regulate.
Case Study No. 2. ALABAMA: Colbert Fossil Plant
The Colbert Fossil Plant is located in Tuscumbia, Alabama, and is owned and operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). The site no longer burns coal but continues to store large deposits of coal ash. TVA’s Coal Ash Rule monitoring covers one onsite coal ash pond (the Coal Ash Rule report for this site was not yet available as of March 2, 2018).
Ashtracker and EIP’s investigations show much more extensive contamination across the site, much of it related to the leaky bedrock underlying multiple coal ash dumps. Ashtracker shows that most (22 of 25) onsite monitoring wells have unsafe levels of one or more pollutants, including arsenic, boron, cobalt, lithium, molybdenum, and six other pollutants.
Case Study No. 3. FLORIDA: Big Bend
In accordance with the Coal Ash Rule, the Big Bend coal ash site in Gibsontown, Florida, has published an analysis of 5 groundwater wells (2 background wells, and 3 monitoring wells) that are located around the “economizer ash and pyrite pond system.” In the analysis, Big Bend shows levels of boron, sulfate, molybdenum, and radium that exceed thresholds for safe drinking water that we use on Ashtracker. It is worth noting here that for some of these contaminants (e.g. boron and sulfate) the thresholds are exceeded even at the wells designated as background. One background well in particular, BW1, which is downgradient of an unregulated area identified as the “long-term fly ash pond,” shows the highest concentrations of both boron and sulfate.
In comparison, EIP’s Ashtracker analysis of Big Bend includes data from 47 wells sampled between 2010 and 2015, and shows 12 different contaminants (including arsenic, boron, thallium, antimony, sulfate, manganese, gross alpha particle activity, molybdenum, fluoride, nitrate, beryllium, and radium) that exceed thresholds for safe drinking water standards used on Ashtracker.
Case Study No. 4. MARYLAND: Brandywine landfill
Brandywine Ash Management Facility is a 217-acre coal ash landfill in Prince George’s County, Maryland that currently accepts coal ash from the Chalk Point and Morgantown Generating Stations. It’s owned by NRG Ash Management, LLC and operated by MD Ash. Groundwater and leachate from the landfill drain into Mataponi Creek, a tributary to the Patuxent River.
Under the Coal Ash Rule, NRG is required to monitor 11 groundwater wells surrounding the lined, 27-acre, active portion of the landfill. Recent sampling results show that groundwater near the active disposal area has been contaminated by coal ash, but historical sampling data from 43 wells across the site – not just its active disposal area – show the contamination is much more widespread. The site’s larger, inactive disposal areas are unlined.
EIP’s analysis of historical groundwater monitoring data from 2010 through early 2017 shows that groundwater beneath the Brandywine landfill contains unsafe levels of antimony, arsenic, beryllium, boron, cadmium, chromium, cobalt, lead, lithium, manganese, molybdenum, nickel, nitrate, selenium, sulfate, and thallium.
Case Study No. 5. NEVADA: Reid Gardner
The Coal Ash Rule requires groundwater monitoring beneath the Reid Gardner Generating Station, (located about 50 miles northwest of Las Vegas and which retired in 2017) at 17 wells surrounding its active coal ash landfill and two ash ponds. The groundwater data published on March 2, 2018 show that all of these wells are contaminated with unsafe levels of sulfate. Ten of the 17 wells, including two background wells, have unsafe levels of boron.
According to historical groundwater reports, three of the four wells defined as “background” have been contaminated by another source of coal ash and contained unsafe levels of arsenic, boron, sulfate, and selenium. The fourth background well is new and historical data are not available.
Groundwater contamination from coal ash at Reid Gardner is much more extensive than described in the plant’s Coal Ash Rule report. While the report provides groundwater data for 17 wells, EIP’s Ashtracker database includes results from 117 wells monitored between 2010 and 2013, 114 of which were polluted by unsafe levels of arsenic, boron, cadmium, lead, strontium, and 10 other toxic pollutants. EIP is still analyzing more recent reports, but Reid Gardner’s 2015 Annual Groundwater Monitoring and Remediation Report evaluated an even larger groundwater monitoring network of 160 wells. The facility is not required to report sampling results from many of these wells under the Coal Ash Rule, as they measure groundwater at inactive disposal areas, but they do reveal an ongoing threat to groundwater.