Jun 28, 2011

Report Finds Coal Ash Dumping Sites Contaminating Groundwater

EPA is limited in its ability to enforce open dumping laws to regulate pollution

A large number of active coal ash disposal sites in 19 states may be violating a federal ban on open dumping, according to a new analysis by the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP). In addition, a House subcommittee voted last week to prohibit federal enforcement action against coal ash disposal sites that violate these rules.

EIP found levels of groundwater contamination at 33 coal ash landfills or impoundments nationwide that are high enough to trigger the “open dumping” provisions of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). Based on a review of recent (though limited) groundwater monitoring data from state agencies, the 33 active coal ash disposal sites in 19 states—Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, North Carolina, North Dakota, Nebraska, Nevada, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee and Texas—meet the open dumping criteria for one or more of the following coal ash-related pollutants: arsenic, barium, cadmium, chromium, fluoride, lead, mercury and selenium.

This list includes chemicals that may be carcinogenic and can cause neurological damage, developmental problems and other diseases. Groundwater that meets the open dumping criteria is toxic and unsafe to drink.

The existing “open dumping” rules were adopted in 1979 under Subtitle D of RCRA. EPA is prohibited from enforcing these requirements, and states receive no funds to implement these standards. The regulations require the closure or clean-up of dumps that pollute groundwater above certain drinking water limits, unless a state can show that the contamination will not affect actual or potential sources of drinking water.

EIP evaluated groundwater data for arsenic, barium, cadmium, chromium, fluoride, lead, mercury and selenium at the limited number of sites that required monitoring of these toxins.

Beyond examining possible RCRA violations, the EIP report also found that groundwater contamination from coal ash is a long-lasting problem. One facility examined in the report stopped dumping coal ash in its landfill in 1977, but groundwater around the site is still contaminated today.