Utilities Admit Coal Plants in 22 States are Violating Federal and State Pollution Standards by Leaking Toxic Chemicals into Groundwater

cape fear, coal ash

Conservation Groups Seek a Court Order to Stop New Trump Rule from Delaying Closure of Leaking Toxic Coal Ash Dumps

Numerous utilities have just disclosed that toxic waste from 67 coal-fired power plants have led to harmful amounts of chemicals in nearby groundwater in excess of state and/or federal standards in Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, New Mexico, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wyoming (see list of plant locations below and here). On December 14, Earthjustice discovered the admissions made on major utilities’ websites. The information was buried on company websites, and only someone knowing what to look for could discover the notices.

The companies that made the admissions include Duke Energy, Southern Company, Alabama Power, Ameren, APS, Berkshire Hathaway Energy, Big Rivers Electric Corporation, Dominion, Georgia Power, Golden Valley Electric Association, Grand Haven Board of Light and Power, Gulf Power, Jacksonville Electric Authority, Lakeland Electric, LG&E (KU), Mississippi Power, NRG, PacifiCorp, Talen Energy, and Westar.

This news illustrates that we still haven’t solved the problem of coal ash as we approach the 10-year anniversary of the Kingston coal ash spill—one of the worst environmental disasters in our history. On Saturday, a memorial service will be held in Harriman, Tennessee, to honor the sacrifice of the more than 30 workers who died following the cleanup of toxic ash and more than 200 workers who are suffering injuries as a result of the cleanup. Just this fall, flood waters from hurricane Florence carried toxic chemicals from a Duke Energy coal ash landfill into a lake in North Carolina.

The utilities’ announcements indicate the contamination is severe enough at all 67 coal plants to require cleanups pursuant to the 2015 coal ash rule. Yet the Trump administration delayed the closure of many of these leaking toxic dumps in a rule finalized last July, putting people’s health at risk. Representing a coalition of environmental and health advocates, Earthjustice, Environmental Integrity Project and the Sierra Club have challenged the rollbacks in the D.C Circuit, following that court’s August decision that EPA must strengthen—not weaken—federal coal ash protections. Yesterday, the groups asked the court to strike down EPA’s unlawful delay of the deadlines for the most dangerous coal ash impoundments to close.

Thanks to the current coal ash rule, which is still in effect, owners of coal plants must disclose when they are exceeding federal limits on groundwater contamination of the worst toxins, like arsenic, chromium, lead, and radioactivity. It’s expected that many more coal plants across the nation will soon join the 67 that have issued the disclosure.

Violating federal levels of these dangerous chemicals in groundwater near coal ash dumps mean utilities have to start immediately preparing cleanup plans to restore groundwater to its original condition—free of the harmful chemicals. Never before have coal plants been required by federal law to clean up their groundwater.

Lisa Evans, Senior Counsel, Earthjustice and a former attorney with the EPA, stated, “For the first time, utilities have admitted that they’ve violated federal and state groundwater standards by polluting our water with toxic coal pollution. It is long past time for coal plants to clean up the toxic mess they’ve made. But instead of moving to protect people from cancer, the Trump administration wants to allow these polluters to escape their cleanup responsibilities. This Christmas gift to the coal industry must be stopped. The price tag is too steep.”

“Naturally clean drinking water is a rare and precious resource; if a polluter contaminates groundwater, that polluter should have to restore groundwater quality,” said Abel Russ, senior attorney at the Environmental Integrity Project. “The coal ash rule is designed to accomplish that goal. Now that we have statistical proof of widespread contamination—a threat we’ve been trying to draw attention to for years—we are very much looking forward to the restoration process.”

The admission by the utilities confirms the widespread contamination that Earthjustice and the Environmental Integrity Project have warned about in a series of reports on coal ash waste. Earthjustice has been involved in advocating for protections from coal ash waste for years. The coal ash disposal rules enacted in 2015 were a result of a lawsuit filed by Earthjustice, and the organization has sued to defend the rule from an effort to gut it by the Trump administration.

“Groundwater is not only a drinking water source for many people—it also often flows directly into waterways,” said Larissa Liebmann, staff attorney at Waterkeeper Alliance. “Now that these companies finally admitted they are causing this contamination, they need to take action immediately to clean up their toxic messes.”

“These leaking coal ash ponds should have been cleaned up years ago,” said Jennifer Peters, National Water Programs Director at Clean Water Action. “Instead these utilities, emboldened by the Trump administration’s pro-industry, pro-polluter agenda, continue to put communities and groundwater at risk, despite the known hazards of storing toxic coal ash waste in unlined pits.”

Tim Maloney, senior policy director at Hoosier Environmental Council, said, “These groundwater contamination notices, from Duke Energy itself, are further confirmation that the coal ash lagoons at Duke’s Indiana power plants are contaminating groundwater and should be cleaned up promptly. There is simply no reason for further delay.” 

Frank Holleman of the Southern Environmental Law Center added, “It’s long past time that utilities in the Southeast move their coal ash from unlined leaking pits next to our rivers to safe, dry, lined storage.  We don’t need more Kingston and Dan River disasters, and we don’t need any more toxic and radioactive pollution of our clean water and drinking water supplies.”

Every coal-fired power plant in Missouri has identifiable coal ash contamination in groundwater surrounding disposal sites because most of them are sitting in or just below the groundwater table. Toxic coal ash will continue indefinitely to seep out of the ponds and contaminate Missouri’s groundwater and nearby surface waterspolluting both downgradient and upgradient wells,” shared Patricia Schuba, President of Labadie Environmental Organization (LEO), a citizen-led nonprofit fighting coal ash pollution. “We believe the risk is actually higher than what the utilities have been forced to report.”

“Coal ash has been dumped in the groundwater at the Lincoln Stone Quarry, next to residences and the Des Plaines River, for far too long. We hope this disclosure will lead to NRG cleaning up this polluted and dangerous coal ash dump,” said Andrew Rehn, Water Resources Engineer at Prairie Rivers Network. “Sadly, the Lincoln Stone Quarry is not the only coal ash dump with unsafe concentrations of toxic pollutants in Illinois. A recent report showed the extensive impact of coal ash on groundwater in Illinois, finding that many other Illinois coal ash sites are also exceeding limits on dangerous pollutants and should be cleaned up.”

List of Plants Where Coal-Ash Contaminated Groundwater Exceeds Allowable State and/or Federal Limits

This table lists 67 plants whose owners have posted notifications that the groundwater exceeds state and/or federal limits of contamination for one or more of the following toxic substances: Arsenic, Beryllium, Cadmium, Chromium, Cobalt, Lead, Lithium, Molybdenum, Selenium, Thallium, and Radium 226 and 228 combined.

In addition, if the unit is a coal ash pond, the table indicates whether the ash pond is lined and whether the pond violates the federal aquifer separation standard, which requires five feet of separation from the base of the pond to the underlying groundwater. Cleanup assessments are required within 60 days at all sites, but owners/operators may attempt to show that an alternative source is responsible for the contamination.

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