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Climate ChangeAs Enforcement Lags, Toxic Coal Ash Keeps Polluting U.S. Water

As Enforcement Lags, Toxic Coal Ash Keeps Polluting U.S. Water

A couple of months ago, the Recent Castle Generating Station, an hour northwest of Pittsburgh, was named one of the contaminated coal-fired power plant sites within the country. Polluted with arsenic and other toxic chemicals, the ability sits between the village of West Pittsburgh, population 821, and the Beaver River, a tributary of the Ohio River, which serves as a drinking water source for greater than 5 million people.

Although the plant, owned by GenOn, largely replaced coal with natural gas in 2016, the location still retains 3 million tons of ash, a combination of feather-light dust and rock-laden material left over from burning coal. Over the past century, U.S. coal-powered electricity generation has produced at the least 5 billion tons of coal ash, enough waste to fill a line of rail cars reaching the moon.

Nearly 60 percent of U.S. annual coal ash production was recycled in 2021, mostly for cement and concrete, in keeping with the American Coal Ash Association. But massive amounts still fill at the least 746 coal ash impoundments in 43 states nationwide, with waste sites mostly occurring in rural, low-income areas and infrequently in communities of color. A recent report reveals that, despite federal rules enacted to remediate these sites, only a few of the nation’s almost 300 coal plants have done so. Nor have they got any plans to.

Groundwater sampling on the Recent Castle plant showed arsenic levels 372 times higher than EPA health standards.

Coal ash incorporates at the least 17 toxic heavy metals and pollutants including lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium, and selenium, all of which might endanger human health, and at the least six neurotoxins and five known or suspected carcinogens. Research shows that prolonged exposure to coal ash via air or water can affect every major organ system within the human body, causing birth defects, heart and lung disease, and quite a lot of cancers. Coal ash pollution has also caused fish kills and deformities in aquatic life.

In line with Avner Vengosh, a professor of environmental quality at Duke University, toxic metals “are relatively easily leached out [of coal ash], unlike normal soil.” Rain that falls on unlined coal-ash impoundments — either ponds for storing wet ash or landfills for storing dry ash — can transport those contaminants to underlying groundwater, he notes, where it may possibly affect drinking water supplies. In line with a 2022 Earthjustice report, at the least 24 coal ash sites nationwide are known to have contaminated greater than 100 private wells.

Groundwater sampling performed on the Recent Castle plant between 2015 and 2017 showed arsenic levels 372 times higher, on average, than EPA health standards and lithium levels 54 times higher than the proposed federal standard. Earthjustice and the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) have ranked Recent Castle the sixth-most contaminated coal ash site within the country.

An aerial view of the Recent Castle Generating Station in western Pennsylvania.
Yale Environment 360

“Although [GenOn] is leaking toxic pollutants into the Beaver River and native groundwater on a regular basis,” said Abel Russ, an attorney with EIP and a coauthor of the 2022 report, “Recent Castle may not be a priority [for state and federal regulators] since it’s distant and, frankly, not a whole lot of individuals are complaining about it.”

“They keep us at midnight,” said Cindy Mozzocio, 66, who has, along with her husband, owned a restaurant in West Pittsburgh for 18 years. She remembers that when GenOn cleaned up certainly one of its three waste pits five years earlier, she assumed the location was not contaminated. “In the event that they said it’s okay, you suspect them,” Mozzocio said. “You trust your officials.”

One among the nation’s largest waste streams, coal ash was not regulated by the federal government until disaster struck. Three days before Christmas in 2008, a coal ash pond in Roane County, Tennessee burst open, releasing 1.1 billion gallons of slurry. The waste buried 300 acres, leading to thousands and thousands of dollars in damage and allegations — currently under litigation — that failure to prioritize safety in the course of the six-year cleanup contributed to a spread of cancers and respiratory illnesses amongst cleanup employees.

The Coal Ash Rule, enacted in 2015, has had little impact. Today, 94 percent of U.S. coal ash ponds are still unlined.

Kingston — the biggest industrial spill in U.S. history — finally forced the Environmental Protection Agency, which had been waffling over methods to regulate coal ash waste for 30 years, to act. In 2010, the EPA proposed two regulatory pathways. Coal ash could possibly be listed as a hazardous waste, forcing utilities to shut their existing coal-ash impoundments and truck the ash to the handful of landfills permitted to handle this waste. Or ash could possibly be listed as a solid waste, which might require all unlined pits to be retrofitted with liners or closed inside five years.

The agency settled on the latter route, which was cheaper for utilities, however the Coal Ash Rule, enacted in 2015, seems to have had little impact. Today, 94 percent of regulated U.S. coal ash ponds are still unlined, and two thirds are either sitting in, or inside 5 feet of, groundwater, in keeping with industry data compiled and analyzed by Earthjustice.

Coal ash sites at greater than 90 percent of the 292 power plants within the U.S. that fall under the rule and have reported groundwater data are leaking contaminants into groundwater, often at levels threatening ecosystems and drinking water. Of those contaminated plants, nearly half have either not committed to a cleanup plan or have denied culpability within the contamination. Only 4 percent of the utilities controlling these sites have chosen cleanup plans to treat a few of the contaminated water.

The aftermath of the 2008 coal ash spill at the Kingston Fossil Plant in Roane County, Tennessee.

The aftermath of the 2008 coal ash spill on the Kingston Fossil Plant in Roane County, Tennessee.
Wade Payne / AP Photo

A part of the issue is interpretation of the 2015 rule. Between 1939 and 1978, the Recent Castle power plant shunted its watered-down waste right into a 120-acre unlined pond. By 1984, plant owners claimed this “legacy” pond was de-watered and commenced layering its waste in a landfill atop that site. The plant also maintained a smaller coal ash pond, to which NRG, the plant’s former owner, and GenOn in 2016 applied the brand new federal coal ash rule: They dried out the pond and dumped its remaining ash within the landfill, which was then covered with dirt. But the businesses did nothing to remediate the larger legacy site underneath the landfill, which continued to leak extremely high levels of contaminants into groundwater.

NRG and GenOn argue that since this legacy pond was dewatered and closed prior to the 2015 rule, the rule doesn’t apply to it. EIP’s Abel Russ argues it does. Under the definition of “inactive surface impoundments,” he says, a site qualifies for regulation if it still incorporates each coal ash and liquid. In line with a report prepared by an outdoor consultant for each NRG and GenOn, evidence shows the historic impoundment is sitting in groundwater, including a wet coal ash layer at the least 9 feet thick submerged beneath the water table. In 2021, the EPA laid out in a letter to Duke Energy, which was contesting regulation of a dewatered impoundment in Indiana, that unlined units sitting in groundwater do, in reality, meet the EPA’s definition of an “inactive surface impoundment” and are subject to the rule.

GenOn didn’t reply to requests for comment. NRG spokesperson Pat Hammond didn’t answer specific questions on Recent Castle or other plants it formerly owned or operated jointly with GenOn. He stated that NRG has not been affiliated with these plants since December of 2018, adding “most of the individuals who were related to these plants aren’t any longer with the corporate.”

“No state agency has filed an enforcement motion anywhere, despite the fact that we’ve seen widespread failure to comply.”

If GenOn had stopped producing electricity before the 2015 rule was enacted, the corporate may need avoided cleanup entirely, as a result of loopholes that keep almost half of U.S. coal ash sites unregulated. These unregulated sites include at the least 170 ponds, within the case of utilities that stopped generating electricity before October 2015, and almost 300 inactive landfills, exempt because they stopped receiving ash after October 17, 2015. Challenges to those loopholes are currently working their way through federal court. Under a looming settlement, Earthjustice is urging the EPA to handle each loopholes — ponds and landfills — concurrently.

Like many federal environmental laws, responsibility for enforcing the Coal Ash Rule, which falls under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), falls primarily to state agencies. Yet in every state where coal is burned, in keeping with the report by Earthjustice and EIP, utilities are violating federal regulations for correct cleanup and disposal.

Frank Holleman, a senior attorney on the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), contends the connection between state agencies and utilities creates a practical problem: State agencies don’t wish to implement the law. “No state agency has filed an enforcement motion anywhere, against any utility, under the 2015 rule, despite the fact that we’ve seen widespread failure to comply,” he says.

Yale Environment 360

A part of the issue is capability. In line with Russ, Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection — which has oversight of 21 individual coal ash impoundments at nine lively and retired coal plants — is so understaffed and underfunded that enforcement of the highly technical and sophisticated rule is difficult.

But states may fail to act, also, as a result of powerful lobbying. “You have got industry capture in states that rely heavily on coal to make electricity,” says Michael Gerrard, professor of environmental law at Columbia Law School, noting West Virginia, Ohio, and Texas as examples. “Those industries have captured environmental and utility regulators.”

On the federal level, Gerrard notes, the Trump administration took office lower than a yr after adoption of the coal ash rule and “enforcement of every kind of environmental laws dropped off.”

Last yr, the EPA finally announced decisions that showed it could start, nevertheless slowly, enforcing the law. In January of 2022, the agency denied three coal plant requests to proceed disposing of coal ash waste, with six more denials to this point this yr.

Until rule enforcement picks up, nevertheless, communities are left with the Sisyphean task of holding industry accountable by filing lawsuits under the federal Clean Water Act or state environmental laws. In line with Lisa Hallowell, a senior attorney for EIP, such actions are “a really time-consuming and resource-intensive process that typically only works with a possible result at a single plant.”

The 299 U.S. coal-burning plants that remain proceed to generate nearly 70 million tons of latest ash annually.

Still, the 2015 rule adds a latest option for citizen enforcement, and two such lawsuits are currently underway. Last fall, the Mobile Baykeeper filed a citizen enforcement motion against Alabama Power, alleging that the utility plans to illegally leave greater than 21 million tons of coal ash from the James M. Barry Generating Plant in its unlined impoundment, which lies inside the Mobile River floodplain and inside five feet of groundwater that’s already contaminated with coal-ash pollutants like arsenic, boron, and cobalt. The lawsuit alleges that floods and storms, increasing within the Southeast with climate change, could raise groundwater levels and further saturate the ash.

The opposite citizen enforcement motion comes from Neighbors Opposing Pit Expansion, a gaggle of roughly 100 residents within the Cincinnati, Ohio area. The group alleges that the brand new owners of a defunct Duke Energy plant that operated for six a long time, accumulating greater than 6 million cubic yards of waste, are continuing to dump ash in unlined pits, violating the 2015 rule and endangering public utility wells for 130,000 people, along with groundwater within the Ohio River floodplain.

“We really want the EPA to implement the law and make it clear they’re going to face by what the law’s plain language requires, and convey these utilities together with them,” said Holleman. “It’s unrealistic to expect small nonprofit community groups across the country, and communities around the location, lots of whom are lower-income communities of color, will give you the option to fight huge, multi-billion-dollar monopolies.”

Coal ash waste from the shuttered Vermilion Power Station seeps into the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River near Collison, Illinois in 2018.

Coal ash waste from the shuttered Vermilion Power Station seeps into the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River near Collison, Illinois in 2018.
Zbigniew Bzdak / Chicago Tribune / Tribune News Service via Getty Images

As a substitute of remediating coal ash sites on a case-by-case basis with expensive litigation, coal ash ought to be recategorized as a hazardous material under RCRA, said the EIP’s Hallowell. Defining coal ash as hazardous would avoid the present loopholes and subject it to tighter landfill regulations and a stricter set of employee safety requirements.

John Ward, communications coordinator of the American Coal Ash Association, a trade group focused on recycling coal ash, said regulating this material as hazardous could be “untenable” for the industry and would kill the coal ash recycling industry. “It’s quite a bit higher to place these things in concrete and constructing products where it’s locked up, than piling thousands and thousands of tons in a landfill somewhere,” he said.

Today, greater than 99 percent of existing U.S. coal plants are dearer to run than replacements that depend on wind, solar, and battery storage. Utilities are either shutting down coal plants or retrofitting them to burn natural gas. GenOn, for instance, has converted all 22 of its plants to natural gas or oil.

But as the facility grid transitions, tons of of thousands and thousands of tons of coal ash have been left behind. In line with EPA data, the 299 coal-burning plants that remain within the U.S. proceed to generate almost 70 million tons of latest ash a yr. The contaminants from this waste proceed to migrate into drinking water sources and lakes and rivers used for recreation.

“Everybody has been focused on the danger of storing [coal ash] in impoundments,” says Vengosh, who discovered that pollution was migrating broadly from 30 North Carolina coal ash impoundments into five lakes lower than a mile and a half away. “We showed that the train has already left the station. The coal ash is already within the environment.”


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