Coal ash is polluting groundwater across the country, according to new utility data

The new reporting comes as the EPA has suggested weakening federal regulations about coal ash disposal.

Coal ash contaminated water, which is colorized from the heavy metals, in Dumfries, Virginia. (CREDIT: Astrid Riecken For The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Coal ash contaminated water, which is colorized from the heavy metals, in Dumfries, Virginia. (CREDIT: Astrid Riecken For The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Coal ash — the residual byproduct of burning coal — is the second-largest form of waste in the entire country, with utilities producing more than 100 million tons of it each year. For decades, companies have dealt with all that coal ash by storing it in unlined pits or landfills. Now, new reporting data shows this has lead to the contamination of groundwater at coal-fired power plants across the country.

Released on Friday, the data found elevated levels of toxic pollutants like arsenic and radium in the groundwater near more than 70 coal-fired power plants and coal ash disposal sites across the United States.

The reports, made publicly available by utilities as part of the first-ever federal regulations on coal ash, come just one day after Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt announced the agency’s intention to weaken federal regulations on coal ash disposal.

“Today is the first time that many American communities will know the extent of groundwater contamination from utilities disposing of their coal ash in leaking, unlined pits sitting in groundwater next to our drinking water resources,” Frank Holleman, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, said on Friday in a press statement released in advance of the utilities’ reporting data.

“But, giving a favor to industry lobbyists, the Trump administration just announced that it wants to weaken this provision and protect the polluters instead of the people and clean water. Instead of doing the right thing, politically powerful utilities are fighting to continue polluting and to avoid cleanup and the consequences of their toxic pollution.”

For decades, coal ash — which contains toxic heavy metals like mercury, arsenic, and lead, as well as radioactive elements — was a virtually unregulated waste stream in the United States. Utilities were allowed to dispose of the waste in unlined landfills or earthen pits, and often mixed the coal ash with water to create massive ponds or lagoons located hundreds of feet from homes and communities.

That approach to coal ash began to change in 2008, following the largest coal ash spill in the nation’s history. The spill wiped out 12 homes and sent some 525 million gallons of coal ash into the Tennessee River and surrounding communities near the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston power plant.

After the spill, the EPA began looking into options for regulating the disposal of coal ash, settling in 2014 on a set of regulations that wouldn’t regulate coal ash as a hazardous waste, but would require utilities to take several steps to better monitor the waste.

And while communities living near coal ash sites were largely critical of the EPA’s new rules — which only required old, unlined coal ash disposal pits to be cleaned up if they were actively found to be polluting groundwater — the regulations did offer a few important protections for public health, like requiring utilities to monitor potential groundwater pollution near coal ash disposal sites.

[The federal regulations] did give some tools to communities that they previously did not have — one that we are seeing come to fruition right now is this monitoring of where this pollution is going,” Dalal Aboulhosn, Sierra Club’s Deputy Legislative Director for Land and Water, told ThinkProgress. 

“What we are seeing the utilities show us right now is that what we suspected before is true — these ponds of pollution are leaking into groundwater and could have toxic repercussions to the community around them. Now we have that on paper.”

According to reporting data released by utilities and analyzed by the Associated Press, major companies like Dominion, Duke, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and American Electric Power (AEP) all reported groundwater contamination near coal ash disposal sites. Duke Energy, in particular, cited findings of contamination at 48 disposal sites, and AEP cited contamination at 24 sites.

Tests of groundwater at Duke Energy sites also revealed levels of radium that exceed federal drinking water standards.

Representatives from the utilities told the Associated Press that while testing revealed groundwater contamination near sites, there was no evidence that this contamination was spreading to wells or groundwater used for human consumption.

Still, independent testing conducted over the past few years by environmental groups and state agencies have revealed levels of toxic elements often found in coal ash in the water of community’s near disposal sites. In North Carolina, for instance, hundreds of families living near coal ash ponds have been forced to drink bottled water for more than 1,000 days after testing revealed potential water contamination.

In recent years, utilities have faced a growing wave of litigation and state regulatory action seeking to force cleanup of their coal ash disposal sites. In 2017, a federal judge in Tennessee ordered the TVA to excavate an unlined coal ash pond near its Gallatin power plant after testing revealed that the pit had been leaching contaminates into groundwater and, potentially, the Cumberland River, which serves as Nashville’s primary source of drinking water.

And late last week, Alabama’s state environmental regulators fined Alabama Power $1.25 million for groundwater contamination at six coal-fired power plants.

The Trump administration’s proposed changes to federal coal ash regulations would include potentially letting utilities decide when to test groundwater for contamination, rather than requiring all utilities to adhere to a mandated schedule. The changes would also transfer a great deal of authority to states, including letting state regulators decide whether a leaking pit should be excavated and cleaned, or left in place.

“The list of environmental protections the Pruitt EPA is attempting to roll back continues to grow, this time with a proposal to weaken the first-ever federal coal ash rule,” Lisa Hallowell, senior attorney with the Environmental Integrity Project, said in a press statement last week. “Despite mounting evidence of pollution at coal ash sites, EPA — which is supposed to be protecting the environment — wants to reduce safeguards.”