For generations, coal power has fueled American prosperity. But for each shovelful thrown into the furnaces, a pile of ash was left in its place.
Today, as coal’s dominance in the power sector wanes, those piles of ash have grown into mountains as coal ash became one of the largest waste streams in the country, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Hundreds of waste ponds and landfills, many constructed without liners to prevent leaks, dot the American landscape, especially in the coal-rich Ohio Valley. And the ash they contain includes the concentrated remains of the many toxic compounds associated with coal and its combustion, such as arsenic, lead, and radium.
The Ohio Valley ReSource and partner station WFPL analyzed newly available data from groundwater monitoring wells near ash disposal sites in the region and found that most show signs of leaking contaminants. At several sites, hazardous compounds are found in groundwater at levels that far exceed federal drinking water standards.
The new data come just as the Trump administration is proposing major changes to rules regarding the storage of ash waste and the future regulation of the waste sites.
The EPA has long struggled to regulate coal ash disposal sites, but spurred by the disastrous failure of a coal ash pond in Tennessee, the Obama administration’s EPA approved a compromise rule in 2015. The rule required utilities to conduct extensive groundwater monitoring around coal ash waste sites and set thresholds for closure of ponds or landfills found to be leaking contaminants.
What the first round of monitoring data revealed is a toxic blend of coal ash chemicals that appear to be leaching into groundwater across the country.
Environmental advocates say the data demonstrate that contamination is ubiquitous, not just in the Ohio Valley but at coal ash sites around the United States.
Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law center, found 92 percent of sites showed evidence of contamination in a review of 100 sites across the country.
“And this is industry produced data,” Lisa Evans, an attorney with Earthjustice, emphasized. “Data is showing us that across the board there was groundwater contamination at almost every site in the country,” she said.
Utilities say the results are preliminary. EPA rules require a second round of testing to validate and characterize the threat before they’re required to take corrective action.
“It’s very important to note that the groundwater monitoring wells for the federal coal ash rule are immediately next to our basin or landfill, so these results do not reflect groundwater conditions farther away or off plant property where neighbors are located,” said Bill Norton, a spokesman for Duke Energy.
In Kentucky and West Virginia, every power plant covered under the EPA rules had coal ash waste sites with evidence of contaminated groundwater, according to the analysis by WFPL and the Ohio Valley ReSource.
Already, three sites in Ohio, four sites in West Virginia and 11 sites in Kentucky have said they will do more testing after finding evidence of possible groundwater contamination.
In southwest Louisville, Louisville Gas & Electric’s largest coal-fired power plant, Mill Creek Generating Station, sits along the Ohio River. The river is also a source of drinking water for more than five million people in the region.
Mill Creek Generating Station’s groundwater data show levels of arsenic — a known carcinogen — more than 40 times higher than national drinking water standards, according to the analysis. The utility is not alone. Many others have high arsenic levels in the groundwater data, including at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s iconic Paradise Fossil Plant in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky.
In West Virginia’s northern panhandle, along the Pennsylvania border, another community is dealing with the consequences of living with the largest coal ash waste site in the country.
Residents talk of a coal ash “lake” that once glowed blue, that gives rise to an unbearable stench, and sometimes seeped liquid coal ash waste into their backyards.
In this series, we’ll explore the extent of the contamination in the region based on the first round of groundwater testing, hear from community members who live next to the waste, and consider the Trump administration’s proposal that could change how the sites are regulated and who regulates them.