Coal Tattoo

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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.