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Coal-ash sites contaminate groundwater

Study by environmental groups finds unsafe levels of arsenic, lithium

by Britt E. Erickson
March 8, 2019 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 97, Issue 10


Coal-fired power plant with emissions coming out of its stack, near a gray river.
Credit: Shutterstock
New groundwater data analysis finds unsafe levels of pollutants near coal-ash-disposal sites in the US.

Groundwater near most coal-ash-disposal sites in the US contains unsafe levels of one or more pollutants, including arsenic and lithium, according to an analysis by the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP), Earthjustice, and other environmental groups.

The groups evaluated groundwater-monitoring data provided by 265 coal-fired power plants, which make up about 75% of coal-fired power plants in the US. Power companies were required to report such data for the first time in 2018.

The Trump administration rolled back those regulations in July. The rollbacks also extend the amount of time that power companies can store coal ash in unlined ponds by 18 months. Environmental groups like EIP say that unlined coal-ash-disposal sites are a major source of groundwater contamination.

The report concludes that groundwater near 52% of US power plants that provided data has unsafe levels of arsenic, a carcinogen and neurodevelopmental toxicant. Groundwater near 60% of the plants has unsafe levels of lithium, which has been associated with neurological effects.

“At a time when the Trump EPA—now being run by a former coal lobbyist—is trying to roll back federal regulations on coal ash, these new data provide convincing evidence that we should be moving in the opposite direction: toward stronger protections for human health and the environment,” Abel Russ, the lead author of the study and an attorney with EIP, says in a statement.


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