Environment News Service (ENS)

Environment News Service (ENS)

Pennsylvania Groundwater Contaminated By Coal Ash

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Source: Environment News Service (ENS)

HARRISBURG, Pennsylvania, September 18, 2007 (ENS) - Disposing of coal ash in mines is contaminating water supplies throughout Pennsylvania, according to a report released today by the advocacy group Clean Air Task Force and the nonprofit, public interest law firm Earthjustice.

In 10 of 15 mines examined across the state, groundwater and streams near areas where coal ash, or coal combustion waste, was placed had levels of arsenic, lead, cadmium and selenium and other pollutants above safe standards.

'Disposing of coal combustion waste in these mines is threatening water supplies all over the state,' said Jeff Stant, director of the Pennsylvania Minefill Research Project at the Clean Air Task Force. 'If the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection won't act now to stop these dangers, the U.S. EPA should step in to protect the residents of Pennsylvania who live near coal ash mine fills.'

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has refered to the 'beneficial use' of coal ash in these active and abandoned mines, claiming that the practice limits the outflow of acidic water from mines.

This study found the opposite was true - in six of the nine permits that used coal ash to treat acid mine drainage, acidity levels increased, leaving the mines more acidic at the end of monitoring.

'I have sampled mine pools under waste sites in eastern Pennsylvania for more than 20 years and am extremely concerned about high levels of lead and cadmium in mine pools underneath mines where coal ash has been placed,' said Robert Gadinski, a professional geologist retired from the Pennsylvania DEP. Gadinski was a contributing author of the report.

'For years, federal agencies have refused to adopt meaningful safeguards for disposing of this toxic material. They have allowed states like Pennsylvania to use coal mines as dump sites for coal ash from power plants, calling it 'beneficial use,' said Lisa Evans, an attorney for Earthjustice and one of the report's contributing authors. 'This report shows that this practice is doing more harm than good.'

CATF and Earthjustice, working with professional geologists and water quality experts, found that 'a lack of safeguards to keep coal ash out of water, inadequate monitoring and no cleanup standards has led to unaddressed contamination in two-thirds of the mines studied.'

A local watershed group is demanding immediate action.

'Based on the findings of this report, the Mahanoy Creek Watershed Association is petitioning the U.S. EPA today to examine the contamination of massive mine pools under the Ellengowan and BD Mines for cleanup under Superfund,' said the association's Robert Krick.

Monitoring data reveals lead and cadmium 30 to 40 times federal drinking water standards and hundreds of times the national water quality criteria down gradient from the 16 million tons of coal ash dumped in the two mines.

The study reinforced findings by the National Academies of Science that high contaminant levels in coal ash leachate pose human health and ecological concerns and that enforceable minimum standards are needed in national regulations for the minefilling of coal combustion wastes.

The study recommends safeguards in regulations that would require adequate short-term and long-term monitoring, limits on pollution allowed from the ash, isolation of ash from water, and financial resources set aside by operators to clean up the pollution caused by their ash.

'With some 120 mines permitted to dump coal ash, Pennsylvania leads the nation in this practice, which is destined to grow in Appalachia if trends continue,' said Eric Schaeffer of the Environmental Integrity Project, which has been monitoring the Pennsylvania's coal ash program.

Over 129 million tons of coal combustion waste are generated from U.S. coal-fired power plants each year and this waste has poisoned groundwater supplies in at least 23 states according to the U.S. EPA.

Last month, the agency released a report that found that cancer risks from exposure to coal combustion waste lagoons is 900 times greater than government safety standards recommend.

Currently, there are about 600 existing coal combustion waste landfills and surface impoundments in the United States and hundreds of mine fills. These sites can contain high levels of lead, cadmium, chromium, mercury and arsenic, among other toxic chemical pollutants.

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