Sunday’s Washington Post included the following update from environmental reporter Juliet Eilperin on the important issue of regulating the handling and disposal of toxic coal ash from our nation’s power plants:
In Maryland’s Zekiah Swamp, one of the Chesapeake Bay’s most important tributaries, 8.4 million tons of coal ash in pits from former operations of the Morgantown power plant are leaking into groundwater. Residents on the Moapa River Reservation north of Las Vegas blame a spike in respiratory illnesses on the uncovered ash ponds and ash dump from a generating station nearby.
The ash left after burning coal includes toxic elements such as arsenic, lead, cadmium, selenium and mercury. Produced by 431 coal-fired power plants, which supply 36 percent of the nation’s electricity, coal ash piles up at the staggering rate of 140 million tons a year.
More than 40 percent of it is recycled to help make concrete, gypsum wallboard and pavement. But utilities store the rest in landfills, ponds or mines, and evidence has been growing in recent years that leakage is a problem.
“The time has come for common-sense national protections to assure safe disposal of these materials,” Environmental Protection Agency administrator Lisa P. Jackson said. That was in 2010.
Despite ongoing controversy — in the last week and a half alone environment groups have sued 14 power plants in North Carolina and four in Illinois over coal ash contamination — no one expects anything more to happen before the election. After that, it depends on the priorities of the party controlling the White House.
Interestingly, the Post story comes just as a new study was being published in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Science and Technology in which Duke University researchers reported:
The combustion of coal to generate electricity produces about 130 million tons of coal combustion residues (CCRs) each year in the United States; yet their environmental implications are not well constrained. This study systematically documents the quality of effluents discharged from CCR settling ponds or cooling water at ten sites and the impact on associated waterways in North Carolina, compared to a reference lake. We measured the concentrations of major and trace elements in over 300 samples from CCR effluents, surface water from lakes and rivers at different downstream and upstream points, and pore water extracted from lake sediments. The data show that CCR effluents contain high levels of contaminants that in several cases exceed the U.S. EPA guidelines for drinking water and ecological effects.
This investigation demonstrates the quality of receiving waters in North Carolina depends on (1) the ratio between effluent flux and freshwater resource volumes and (2) recycling of trace elements through adsorption on suspended particles and release to deep surface water or pore water in bottom sediments during periods of thermal water stratification and anoxic conditions. The impact of CCRs is long-term, which influences contaminant accumulation and the health of aquatic life in water associated with coal-fired power plants.
Study author Avner Vengosh, professor of geochemistry and water quality at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment, said:
We are saving the sky by putting in more scrubbers to remove particulates from power plant emissions. But these contaminants don’t just disappear. As our study shows, they remain in high concentrations in the solid waste residue and wastewater the coal-fired power plants produce. Yet there are no systematic monitoring or regulations to reduce water-quality impacts from coal ash ponds because coal ash is not considered as hazardous waste.