News Feature | March 16, 2018

Coal Plants Pose Groundwater Threat, New Data Shows

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome,

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Mounting data suggests that pollution from coal-burning power plants may pose a threat to drinking water.

“Major utilities have found evidence of groundwater contamination at coal-burning power plants across the U.S. where landfills and man-made ponds have been used for decades as dumping grounds for coal ash, according to data released by plant owners. Heightened levels of pollutants — including arsenic and radium in some cases — were documented at plants in numerous states, from Virginia and North Carolina to Washington and Alaska,” the Associated Press reported.

The coal industry submitted reports to the U.S. EPA in recent weeks. The data shows that “at more than 70 sites across the country, toxins like arsenic, mercury, and radium are leaching into groundwater from pond-like storage pits filled with the sludgy leftovers of coal burning,” The New Republic reported.

The U.S. EPA mandated that coal-burning power plant owners monitor groundwater pollution. But that program may be in jeopardy. The Trump administration announced in March that it will curb aspects of the program. The aim is to reduce energy industry compliance costs by as much as $100 million, the AP reported. The EPA plans to accomplish this by overhauling an Obama-era coal ash rule, according to The Washington Post.

"There's no dispute that the underlying groundwater is being contaminated. We see that clearly," said Duke University professor Avner Vengosh, who reviewed parts of the data. "The real question is whether it's migrating toward people or wells next to [coal plants]."

“The data released is consistent with data we’ve seen before, and also measured before, that showed shallow wells underlying most everywhere are being affected by leaking coal ash,” Vengosh stated, per The New Republic.

Coal ash spills have caused catastrophes a number of times in recent years.

“In February 2014, an underground pipe burst at a Duke Energy steam station in North Carolina, spilling tens of thousands of tons of coal ash into the Dan River. According to the EPA, the waste contained a long list of various metals, including arsenic, copper, lead and mercury,” The Washington Post reported.

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