Blockbuster research report shows groundwater is contaminated with toxic waste at 91 percent of coal plants

March 4, 2019 7:00 am

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Last week, 52 U.S. senators voted to confirm a new Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: Andrew Wheeler, a former lobbyist for the polluting coal industry.

The vote went mostly along party lines (with Republicans approving Wheeler) and 47 senators (mostly Democrats) voting against the absurd idea of allowing a man who made a career knocking down clean air and water protections to suddenly be in charge of safeguarding our shared public resources. Florida Republican U.S. Senators Rick Scott and Marco Rubio voted yes on Wheeler.

Wheeler’s ascension to lead EPA comes at a particularly troubling time for anyone who cares about clean water. It’s easy to get exhausted by the bad news coming out of Washington these days, I get it. But this is important, so please try to battle the “I-can’t take-all-this-dismal-news-I-want-to-tune-out” mindset and stay with me here for a moment. I promise I will tell you what action you can take to counter what’s happening at your EPA.

It’s true that the era of coal-burning power plants in America is waning, as utilities switch to natural gas and, in some cases, renewable energy sources like solar and wind power. But a huge challenge remains: the toxic mess that coal plants leave behind. After utilities burned the coal, they stockpiled it in landfills and pits – almost all of them unlined. You can guess what happened. Toxic waste is leaking out of these industrial waste piles and into our drinking water sources all over America.

A new blockbuster report out today from two environmental groups – the Environmental Integrity Project and the nonprofit law firm Earthjustice – finds that 91 percent of coal ash dumps are leaking into groundwater. The groups reviewed data from 4,600 groundwater monitoring wells at 265 coal plants – which is about three quarters of the nation’s coal plants. The problem is even bigger than what’s documented in the report, because many other coal plants aren’t required to monitor groundwater because of an industry loophole – the very sort of get-out-of-jail-free card that the EPA Administrator Wheeler would have arranged for his corporate polluter clients.

We’re talking about some nasty toxic waste here – 52 percent of the coal plant properties analyzed in the groundwater well report have unsafe levels of arsenic, a carcinogen that can affect the brains of developing children. Sixty percent have unsafe levels of lithium, which is tied to a host of bad health effects, including neurological damage.

“The levels of contamination at many sites are off the charts – hundreds of times higher than what could be considered safe,” says the report, which also notes that the dumps are often located in low-income, minority neighborhoods.

A plant in Pennsylvania has so much arsenic in its groundwater that it would statistically cause cancer in one out of six people. A Duke Energy plant about 12 miles outside Charlotte, North Carolina, has levels of leaking cobalt (which causes thyroid damage) that are more than 500 times above safe levels. And consider this worrisome fact from the report’s authors:

“The researchers of this report could not determine the safety of drinking water near the coal ash dumps analyzed in this study because power companies are not required to test private wells.”

The only reason we know about this contamination is because environmental groups went to court against the EPA, successfully arguing that the the agency has a duty to regulate coal ash dumps to protect the public from toxic pollution. In 2015, the EPA settled the suit by coming up with the first-ever regulations for coal ash. One of the requirements: to put in groundwater monitoring wells and report the results. Those reports became available last year, which allowed researchers to cull the results for the Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice report.

A disclaimer here: I worked as a consultant for Earthjustice and many other environmental and public-interest groups for 15 years, researching and helping tell the stories of countless critical Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act lawsuits. One Florida toxic coal ash dump case comes to mind.

Five years ago, in a rural part of North Florida, members of the Waterkeeper Alliance and Apalachicola Riverkeeper took samples of water flowing into the Apalachicola River from an unlined coal ash waste dump at a shuttered coal plant operated by Gulf Power, and what they found concerned them. They retained the services of the lawyers at Earthjustice, who represent clients in environmental cases for free. Earthjustice sued Gulf Power under the federal Clean Water Act on behalf of the Waterkeeper groups and the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. The groups raised concerns that the earthen berms surrounding the coal ash pits could suddenly give way and cause a massive coal ash spill, devastating the entire scenic Apalachicola River and its delicate estuary downstream. This same scenario has happened elsewhere.

The legal settlement with Gulf Power offers new protections from the toxic waste the company left in its wake. Crews are now working to dry out and remove the coal ash from the unlined pits along the Apalachicola River, transferring it to a new onsite landfill located further away from the river and out of the flood zone. Gulf Power agreed to install an impermeable cover over the landfill and a subterranean “cutoff wall” to prevent groundwater from flowing through the toxic waste. The settlement also requires Gulf Power to keep monitoring groundwater around the dump to see what might be leaking out.

And now, as promised, a note about what you can do about all this. Politics are clearly not working at the moment to make sure the environment is protected. (Exhibit A: Wheeler running the EPA.) But the courts are working. If you want to fight back, support the lawyers who are suing the Trump administration for eviscerating our clean water, air, and land protections.

Because guess what? In case after case, the Trump administration is losing in court.

Earthjustice, for one, has filed 121 lawsuits against the Trump’s rollbacks of environmental laws.

So, some advice if you are outraged by the wide-scale poisoning of our groundwater: Sure, you should call your elected representatives and work for electoral change. But the best thing to do right now? Support the nonprofit groups that are sending lawyers into court on our behalf against the forces of greed, disregard, and short-sightedness.

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Julie Hauserman
Julie Hauserman

Julie Hauserman has been writing about Florida for more than 30 years. She is a former Capitol bureau reporter for the St. Petersburg (Tampa Bay) Times, and reported for The Stuart News and the Tallahassee Democrat. She was a national commentator for National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition Sunday and The Splendid Table . She has won many awards, including two nominations for the Pulitzer Prize. Her work is featured in several Florida anthologies, including The Wild Heart of Florida , The Book of the Everglades , and Between Two Rivers . Her new book is Drawn to The Deep, a University Press of Florida biography of Florida cave diver and National Geographic explorer Wes Skiles.