Groups: EPA knew of health hazards linked to coal ash ponds
By Tony Bartelme
The Post and Courier
One out of 50 people who live next to coal ash ponds could get cancer from drinking water contaminated with arsenic, a coal ash pollutant, according to federal research that two environmental groups said the Bush administration kept under wraps for years.
“We now have the full picture about coal dump sites across America, and it’s not pretty,” said Eric Schaeffer, director of Environmental Integrity Project, adding that the EPA has “known about these (health) hazards for a long time.”
His group and Earthjustice obtained a 2002 report by the Environmental Protection Agency that the Bush administration had refused to release, despite numerous requests under the Freedom of Information Act.
The study examined potential health risks of more than 200 coal ash waste dumps across the country, including a dozen in South Carolina and 17 in North Carolina.
The groups made the information public Thursday.
In Rowan County, Duke Energy’s Buck Steam Station has three coal ash ponds that are similar to the one that ruptured Dec. 22, 2008, in eastern Tennessee.
The impoundments at Buck cover some 119 acres.
Duke Energy told the Salisbury Post in January that the company’s coal ash ponds systemwide have passed annual and five-year inspections and are in compliance with all existing laws and regulations.
Among other things, the recently released data show that coal ash ponds have a statistical chance of polluting waterways with boron at concentrations up to 2,000 times higher than what the EPA says is safe for wildlife.
Much of the data was used to produce a report in 2007 about the health risks of coal ash impoundments, but environmental watchdog groups said the release of the 2002 data shows that EPA officials knew about the dangers of coal waste for years before informing the public.
Ben Moore of the Coastal Conservation League said the findings also add new fuel to the debate over Santee Cooper’s plan to build a new coal-fired power plant near Florence, which could have two ash dumps.
A Post and Courier Watchdog report last fall documented how ash ponds and landfills in South Carolina have contaminated groundwater with arsenic, selenium and other toxic chemicals. Utilities and industries that operate these dumps say they’ve taken pains to monitor the contamination and improve the structural integrity of these impoundments.
Last December, the ash issue made national headlines when an impoundment next to a coal plant in Tennessee failed, spilling a billion gallons of ash-tainted muck. Schaeffer said the spill was an “Exxon Valdez moment” for the coal industry that has led to new calls to regulate coal ash. Right now, the EPA considers coal ash a non-hazardous waste. In March, the EPA said it would take a new look at the safety of ash ponds and landfills and develop new regulations by year’s end.
As with the Tennessee coal-fired power plant, the Buck Steam Station lies next to a major waterway ó in this case, the Yadkin River.
Duke Energy added Buck Steam Station’s “newest” pond in 1983. Of the three coal ash basins on the plant site, one is considered primary and the other two secondary, but all are in use.
The company told the Post 5 million pounds of coal ash are stored in Buck’s three basins, which were constructed over a period of several decades. The steam station dates back to 1926 and is the oldest plant with coal-fired units in Duke’s system.
The primary basin collects the ash-water slurry and allows the ash to settle out. The second and third basins are used for additional water clarification.
A Duke spokesperson said in January that a minimal amount of ash might pass from the primary to secondary basins, with “virtually very little ash” carried to the tertiary basin.
The ash present in the secondary and tertiary basins was collected before construction of the primary basin, according to Duke Energy.
The ponds are contained by earthen dams, and their size or footprint at the site does not change.
Mark Wineka of the Salisbury Post contributed to this story.