Coal Ash Pollution Contaminates Ground Water At Hundreds Of Locations

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Across the US, coal-fired generating plants produce around 100 million tons of coal ash each year. Today, there are at least 2 billion tons of the stuff stored in pits of varying quality. Coal ash contains large amounts of cadmium, cobalt, chromium, lead, arsenic, and lithium — toxins that are linked to cancer, kidney damage, and neurological disorders. How much of those substances do you want in your children’s drinking water? If your answer is “None,” you may want to ask why the Trump maladministration is more interested in protecting power companies than people.

A Duke Energy coal ash lagoon in NC, closed in 2012 (
A Duke Energy coal ash lagoon in NC, closed in 2012 Credit:

Government Assault On Free Enterprise

It is fashionable these days to applaud the rollback of government regulations. So-called conservatives start foaming at the mouth whenever they hear those words. Bad! Bad! Bad! The damned government should butt out and let business do whatever it wants because, you know, profits! No profits, no jobs. Freedom! America! So what if people get sick and die? You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs. In America today, being a conservative means never having to say you’re sorry.

In olden days when the hateful Obamans were running things, they forced utility companies to install groundwater monitoring systems at hundreds of coal ash storage sites around the country to find out just exactly how much dangerous crud was leaching into the environment. The utility companies screamed bloody murder about the cost of those systems but still the Obamans persisted. Now the first reports from those monitoring stations are available.

Film At Eleven!

The news isn’t good. The Environmental Integrity Project has analyzed the data and found that of the 265 US power plants that monitor groundwater, 242 reported unsafe levels of at least one pollutant derived from coal ash. “The pollution is basically everywhere you look. The major concern is that this could be a problem for decades or centuries because once the pollutants leach from the coal ash into the water, they are hard to get out,” says Abel Russ, an attorney for EIP.

In Texas, all  of the 16 coal-fired power plants included in the data were found to be leaching dangerous amounts of chemicals into local groundwater. “We found contamination everywhere we looked, poisoning groundwater aquifers and recreational fishing spots across the state,” Abel says. “This confirms that dumping large volumes of toxic waste in poorly lined pits is a terrible idea. The problem is unfortunately going to get even worse unless Texas power plants change the way they dispose of coal ash.”

The Worst Of The Worst

The EIP says the worst groundwater contamination from coal ash in Texas is at the San Miguel Electric Co-Op power plant an hour south of San Antonio. At a nearby cattle ranch owned by the Peeler family, the arsenic level in the groundwater is 12 times greater that the EPA maximum. Cadmium levels are 130 times higher than what the EPA says is safe. High levels of boron, beryllium, and lithium have also been detected, according to utility monitoring data.

“The toxic pollution leaking from these coal ash dumps is threatening our family’s ranch and our heritage,” said Jason Peeler. “We’ve asked the power company to stop polluting our land and clean up the mess, but their response has been to threaten to seize our land through eminent domain instead of cleaning it up. It’s outrageous — and an example of how coal ash pollution can cause real damage.”

Corporate Malfeasance

In what passes for political debate today — an environment in which he who screams the loudest wins — corporations hide their nefarious doings behind a smokescreen of lies and half truths. Their position is always, “If you cannot prove beyond a reasonable doubt that that molecule of (fill in the toxin of your choice here) came from our property, then we are not responsible and will spend whatever it takes to punish you for making such outrageous claims. We will sue you for defamation. We will sic legions of lawyers on you to make your life a living hell. How dare you interfere with the process of free enterprise, you socialist!”

The EPA, now run by former coal industry lobbyist Andrew Wheeler, has pushed back the time when power companies need to line their coal ash pits with impermeable liners by 18 months, claiming it will give the companies “much-needed flexibility in the management of coal ash.” Oh, and by the way, it will also save the companies $31 million a year. Notice there is no corresponding economic value placed on the negative health effects coal ash pollution will have on American citizens.

Widespread pollution spread by coal ash dumps should act as “a wake-up call for the nation,” says Lisa Evans, senior counsel for Earthjustice, which assisted with the report. “Using industry’s own data, our report proves that coal plants are poisoning groundwater nearly everywhere they operate. The Trump administration insists on hurting communities across the US by gutting federal protections. They are making a dire situation much worse.”

In addition to the San Miguel facility in Texas, the data shows the rest of the 10 worst coal ash pollution sites are located in North Carolina, Wyoming, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Utah, Maryland, Mississippi, and Kentucky. Georgia and Missouri have done the best job of eliminating leaky coal ash pits, but why should such an important issue be left to the individual states to manage?

Ideology Vs. Common Sense

Ideology trumps common sense in America today. The federal government is evil and must be restrained at all costs according to the Koch Brothers funded reactionaries. Except when it comes to things like vehicle emissions. Then the power of the federal government must be wielded with maximum force to bludgeon the states into compliance.

Isn’t it odd that Americans went into a frenzy about diesel emissions a few years ago with threats of criminal prosecution but groundwater pollution gets little more than a “ho hum” from authorities? Hypocrisy, thy name is America.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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