Public Data Shows Elevated Levels Of Pollutants In Coal Ash Dumps

Originally published on March 5, 2019 12:01 pm

A report out Monday from environmental groups looked at groundwater contamination from coal-fired power plants. Three of the worst sites are located in the Mountain West.

Coal ash is the solid waste leftover when you burn coal. It often gets mixed with water and washed into a pit — an ash pond. If the base of a pond isn’t properly sealed, pollutants in the mix can make their way into groundwater.

A 2015 Environmental Protection Agency rule requires companies to monitor and report pollutants in their active coal ash dumps. Now, data from over 260 sites across the country has been released.

According to a report by the Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice, the data shows that 91 percent of those plants have elevated levels of pollutants.

The report says that two of the country’s 10 worst contamination sites are in Wyoming, and one in Utah. All three are owned by the company PacifiCorp, also known as Rocky Mountain Power.

Historically the industry has dumped coal ash into ponds or landfills of varying quality. The EPA’s Coal Ash Rule sets out where and how ponds can be built to minimize leakage. But the report says it isn’t enough to build them differently — the existing ones need to be cleaned up as well.

"If you don't do anything about it now, the problem is going to continue to get worse for probably generations before it reaches its peak. And so that's why we're concerned about future generations not just present residents," said Abel Russ, lead author on the report and senior attorney with the Environmental Integrity Project, a nonprofit watchdog group.

The list of coal ash dumps with elevated levels of pollutants includes 17 sites in Colorado, Montana, Utah and Wyoming. The pollutants include lithium, selenium, arsenic and cobalt. The report states concentrations of those range between 1 and 230 times the levels considered safe.

"We recognize that there can be environmental impacts from the generation of electricity this way," said David Eskelsen, a spokesperson with PacifiCorp. "PacifiCorp has been managing these facilities with groundwater permits with the state environmental quality offices in both Wyoming and Utah for many decades."

As required by the EPA, the company has posted its monitoring data publicly. Those reports conclude that pollutants including lithium have, indeed, "exceeded groundwater protection standards." 

"One thing I’d like to emphasize is that in these three plant locations, natural groundwater is already of very low quality," said Eskelen. "It’s Class IV, which is a class of water that is not usable for any but some limited industrial uses."

He said PacifiCorp will hold public meetings later this year about what corrective action to take.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado. 

Copyright 2019 KUNC. To see more, visit KUNC.