Secret EPA study: Big cancer risks from coal-ash ponds

May 7, 2009 by Ken Ward Jr.

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Every year, coal-fired power plants dump nearly 100 million tons of various wastes — fly ash, bottom ash, and scrubber sludge — into landfills and impoundments. Can living near one of these dumps increase your risk of getting cancer?

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency thinks so. But under the Bush administration, the agency didn’t want you to know that. Now, the Obama EPA has released a previously secret study that found residents near these coal-ash dumps have as much as a 1 in 50 chance of getting cancer from drinking water contaminated with arsenic.

That’s according to a new report being released right now by the Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice. I’ve posted the report, “Coming Clean: What EPA Knows About the Dangers of Coal Ash,” here and a list of the coal-ash dumps examined in the secret EPA study here. The EPA study itself is posted here.

Among the key findings:

The problem may be twice as big as the date indicate — The number of unlined and clay-lined ash ponds and landfills currently in operation in the United States is likely to be more than double the number of units represented in the EPA survey data.

The coal ash threat could linger for 100 years — Because some of the EPA data go back to the mid-1990s, it is possible that some of the listed dumps are no longer in use. The EPA warns, however, that peak pollution from ash ponds can occur long after the waste is placed and is likely to result in peak exposures about 78 to 105 years after the pond first began operation.

Higher cancer risk for up to 1 in 50 nearby residents — The EPA estimates that up to 1 in 50 nearby residents could get cancer from exposure to arsenic leaking into drinking water wells from unlined waste ponds that mix ash with coal refuse. Threats are also posed by high levels of other metals, including boron, selenium and lead.

Higher non-cancer risks from lead and other sources — The EPA also predicted that these unlined ash ponds can increase the risk of other “non-cancer” health effects, such as damage to vital organs like the liver and kidneys, or damage to the central nervous system. Unlined waste ponds that mix ash and coal refuse will result in exposures up to nine times the federal standard for lead, a deadly neuro-toxin that can damage the central nervous system, especially in young children.

This report is the latest — and among the most significant — bit of information about coal-ash dangers to surface since December’s disastrous collapse of a similar facility at the TVA’s Kingston Plant in East Tennessee. As Coal Tattoo readers well know, the TVA mess made clear how poorly regulated coal ash handling and disposal is, and put the issue on the front burner for the Obama administration and Congress. It’s sure to put more pressure on EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, who has promised to deal with coal ash, but has lots of things on her plate.

Now, the risk numbers — dealing with additional health risks for folks who rely on well water and live near where coal-ash dumps contaminated groundwater — were for the most part released two years ago, when EPA published an August 2007 Risk Assessment study. But what’s new here is that essentially the same information was available to EPA nearly five years earlier in this October 2002 report — but the Bush EPA never gave the information to the public. In March, the Obama EPA quietly posted the document on an agency rulemaking Web site. (It’s also important to note that the August 2007 report itself didn’t get nearly the attention it deserved from reporters like me, even after the TVA disaster).

And, the 2002 report reveals some incredible new findings about risks to aquatic ecosystems and wildlife: According to EPA data, ash ponds are predicted to leak boron into surface waters at concentrations 2,000 times higher than what is safe for aquatic life. And, EPA data also shows levels of arsenic and selenium will be 10 times higher than what is safe.

“We now have the full picture about coal dump sites across America, and it is not pretty,” said Eric Schaeffer, director of the Environmental Integrity Project. “The EPA’s data shows that the disposal of coal ash, especially in unlined ponds, results in alarmingly high risks of cancer and diseases of the heart, lung, liver, stomach and other organs and can seriously harm aquatic ecosystems and wildlife near disposal sites.”

Earthjustice attorney Lisa Evans, one of the environmental community’s top experts on this issue, said:

Given what the agency already knows, coal ash ponds must be phased out — and cleaned out — within five years, to keep their toxic cargo from building up and jeopardizing the health of nearby residents, poisoning wildlife, and contaminating rivers and streams.

So-called “dry landfills” — especially those that are unlined — also pose unacceptable risks, and ought to be regulated as hazardous waste disposal sites. The EPA’s risk assessment clearly establishes that unlined coal-ash disposal sites — wet and dry — are hazardous to human health and the environment.

We hope the new leadership at the EPA will act on that knowledge before further serious damage occurs to our health and environment.

15 Responses to “Secret EPA study: Big cancer risks from coal-ash ponds”

  1. Bruno says:

    More proof that coal can never be clean. Whether at the extraction end–destroying communities by mountaintop removal or poisoning them from sludge injection (Rawl, Prenter, etc.)–or the burning end (coal ash piles and CO2 cooking the planet), it’s deadly for humans and other living things. The stuff doesn’t just go away. Of course, pro-coal profiteers will say the EPA’s study proving the deadly health effects is just a communist conspiracy to take jobs. If the true cost of coal were to be funded, hundreds of thousands of people could work for decades trying to fix this mess.

  2. Aimee says:

    Maybe coal is not as clean as Massey would have everyone to believe, but you cannot just shut down an entire industry that employs millions tomorrow. It’s just not reasonable.

  3. […] t­he o­­rig­ina­l p­o­­st­ here: B­l­og­s­ @ The Char­l­es­ton G­azette – » S­ecr­… Share and […]

  4. Cindy Rank says:

    Yes, Aimee, you’re right.

    It may not be reasonable to close down an entire industry tomorrow…… but it is eminently reasonable to require industries – any and all – to tend their waste in such a way as to not harm people and the environment.

    In this instance the authors of the report are urging EPA to regulate coal ash as the hazardous waste that it is so as to protect the people, waters and rest of the environment from toxins that waste contains.

  5. Nanette says:

    I have to wonder what they are doing with this ash that is being transferred into Boone County. I see coal trucks hauling it by my house. Is it legal to dump it on MTR sites? If not where are they dumping it? I don’t know of any legal dump sites for the ash in this county. If there is, it is very well hidden. Also it seems to me that they should have to wet down those loads before they let them out on the highway. Some evenings the dust is so thick that the air looks orange when the sun angle is just right. We are breathing this airborn ash and many people don’t even realize what it is.

  6. Cindy Rank says:

    Nanette,

    There are some strip mines where the alkaline fly ash is mixed with the blown apart rock and used as part of the backfill. … I don’t know if any of the mines around you are using ash in that manner, but it would be listed in the permit if they are.

    Transporting the ash without the proper container tanker type trucks is another matter…. And even then, those trucks often look like they’re covered in cement dust.

  7. Nanette says:

    Cindy,

    These trucks are just regular coal trucks full of dusty, ashy material. They are tarped, but the wind from just speed of the trucks send the stuff flying like grey smoke. I never knew if that was legal or not. I wouldn’t think that it would be, but given how things are here nothing surprises me anymore. I just hate that everyone who lives along this road is exposed to it.

    This EPA study is extremely disturbing, and to know that the government just sat on this information for so long. I have to wonder if so many of the young people around here who have died from liver cancers and other cancers that normally you think of older people having has any connection to this.

    Also Cindy, if that ash is mixed with the backfill, wouldn’t that eventually leach into creeks and rivers too? I would think it eventually would.

  8. Tim Mullins says:

    There’s a better way than destroying Appalachia when we could create renewable green jobs, mountaintop removal is a SIN. Appalachia can’t stand anymore of the toxic prosperity.

    http://www.wisecountyissues.com/?p=138

  9. Cindy Rank says:

    Nanette,

    Yes, there are certainly questions and concerns about using coal ash in backfilling strip mines as well as pumping ash into abandoned deep mines and filling mine pits with the ash.

    Some of the same people who compiled the report that began this conversation on Coal Tattoo also issued a report earlier this year entitled WASTE DEEP – Filling Mines with Coal Ash is Profit for Industry, but Poison for People
    (http://www.earthjustice.org/library/reports/earthjustice_waste_deep.pdf )

    Also, as part of testimony to the National Academy of Sciences in 2005 the Morgantwon based environmental consulting group Downstream Strategies presented a report about the impacts of coal ash disposed on two mine sites in northern WV. (http://www.downstreamstrategies.com/Documents/reports_publication/Water_quality_impacts_CCW_disposal_Apr2005.pdf)

    If i find out any more about the trucks you see on your road, i’ll get back to you directly rather than here on Coal Tattoo.

  10. Nanette says:

    Thanks Cindy, I really appreciate it.

  11. jamie says:

    Just more lies to help obama do what he wants and shut down coalmines

  12. […] More Bush Presidency coverup Every year, coal-fired power plants dump nearly 100 million tons of various wastes — fly ash, bottom ash, and scrubber sludge — into landfills and impoundments. Can living near one of these dumps increase your risk of getting cancer? The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency thinks so. But under the Bush administration, the agency didn’t want you to know that. Now, the Obama EPA has released a previously secret study that found residents near these coal-ash dumps have as much as a 1 in 50 chance of getting cancer from drinking water contaminated with arsenic. That’s according to a new report being released right now by the Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice. I’ve posted the report, “Coming Clean: What EPA Knows About the Dangers of Coal Ash,” here and a list of the coal-ash dumps examined in the secret EPA study here. The EPA study itself is posted here. Among the key findings: – The problem may be twice as big as the date indicate — The number of unlined and clay-lined ash ponds and landfills currently in operation in the United States is likely to be more than double the number of units represented in the EPA survey data. – The coal ash threat could linger for 100 years — Because some of the EPA data go back to the mid-1990s, it is possible that some of the listed dumps are no longer in use. The EPA warns, however, that peak pollution from ash ponds can occur long after the waste is placed and is likely to result in peak exposures about 78 to 105 years after the pond first began operation. – Higher cancer risk for up to 1 in 50 nearby residents — The EPA estimates that up to 1 in 50 nearby residents could get cancer from exposure to arsenic leaking into drinking water wells from unlined waste ponds that mix ash with coal refuse. Threats are also posed by high levels of other metals, including boron, selenium and lead. – Higher non-cancer risks from lead and other sources — The EPA also predicted that these unlined ash ponds can increase the risk of other “non-cancer” health effects, such as damage to vital organs like the liver and kidneys, or damage to the central nervous system. Unlined waste ponds that mix ash and coal refuse will result in exposures up to nine times the federal standard for lead, a deadly neuro-toxin that can damage the central nervous system, especially in young children. This report is the latest — and among the most significant — bit of information about coal-ash dangers to surface since December’s disastrous collapse of a similar facility at the TVA’s Kingston Plant in East Tennessee. As Coal Tattoo readers well know, the TVA mess made clear how poorly regulated coal ash handling and disposal is, and put the issue on the front burner for the Obama administration and Congress. It’s sure to put more pressure on EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, who has promised to deal with coal ash, but has lots of things on her plate. Now, the risk numbers — dealing with additional health risks for folks who rely on well water and live near where coal-ash dumps contaminated groundwater — were for the most part released two years ago, when EPA published an August 2007 Risk Assessment study. But what’s new here is that essentially the same information was available to EPA nearly five years earlier in this October 2002 report — but the Bush EPA never gave the information to the public. In March, the Obama EPA quietly posted the document on an agency rulemaking Web site. (It’s also important to note that the August 2007 report itself didn’t get nearly the attention it deserved from reporters like me, even after the TVA disaster). And, the 2002 report reveals some incredible new findings about risks to aquatic ecosystems and wildlife: According to EPA data, ash ponds are predicted to leak boron into surface waters at concentrations 2,000 times higher than what is safe for aquatic life. And, EPA data also shows levels of arsenic and selenium will be 10 times higher than what is safe. “We now have the full picture about coal dump sites across America, and it is not pretty,” said Eric Schaeffer, director of the Environmental Integrity Project. “The EPA’s data shows that the disposal of coal ash, especially in unlined ponds, results in alarmingly high risks of cancer and diseases of the heart, lung, liver, stomach and other organs and can seriously harm aquatic ecosystems and wildlife near disposal sites.” Earthjustice attorney Lisa Evans, one of the environmental community’s top experts on this issue, said: Given what the agency already knows, coal ash ponds must be phased out — and cleaned out — within five years, to keep their toxic cargo from building up and jeopardizing the health of nearby residents, poisoning wildlife, and contaminating rivers and streams. So-called “dry landfills” — especially those that are unlined — also pose unacceptable risks, and ought to be regulated as hazardous waste disposal sites. The EPA’s risk assessment clearly establishes that unlined coal-ash disposal sites — wet and dry — are hazardous to human health and the environment. We hope the new leadership at the EPA will act on that knowledge before further serious damage occurs to our health and environment. (From a West Virginia (i.e. Coal Country) newspaper). Blogs @ The Charleston Gazette – Secret EPA study: Big cancer risks from coal-ash ponds […]

  13. […] Secret EPA study: Big cancer risks from coal-ash ponds: Among the key findings: – The coal ash threat could linger for 100 years… – Higher cancer risk for up to 1 in 50 nearby residents… – Higher non-cancer risks from lead and other sources… The EPA also predicted that these unlined ash ponds can increase the risk of other “non-cancer” health effects, such as damage to vital organs like the liver and kidneys, or damage to the central nervous system. […]

  14. […] come out about coal ash, both nationally and here in West Virginia. See previous posts including Secret EPA study: Big cancer risks from coal-ash ponds,  EPA names the names: Coal ash pond list disclosed, More data on threats from coal-ash […]

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