The water we drinkCoal waste has contaminated water in 34 states

Published 31 August 2010

Coal-waste disposal sites have contaminated drinking and surface water in 34 states; the sites released pollutants such as arsenic, selenium, lead and chromium into water sources on which both humans and farm animals depend; there could be a bigger problem yet: large coal ash-generating states like Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Indiana, Ohio, Mississippi, Missouri, New Mexico, and Tennessee, require no monitoring by law at coal ash ponds, so the pollution of water by coal ash is not even monitored

Pollution downstream from coal-ash spill site // Source:

More U.S. coal-waste disposal sites have contaminated drinking or surface water with arsenic and other heavy metals, according to a study by three environmental groups — Earthjustice, the Environmental Integrity Project, and the Sierra Club, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Environmental Leader reports that the groups’ report, “In Harm’s Way: Lack Of Federal Coal Ash Regulations Endangers Americans And Their Environment” (.pdf), which is based on data available through state agencies, reveals that contaminants at 39 coal-waste sites across 21 states have leached into the groundwater. This is in addition to 67 cases already identified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

A February 2010 EIP/Earthjustice report documented 31 coal-ash dump sites in 14 states. The 39 additional sites in this report, along with the 67 already identified by the EPA, brings the total number of known toxic contamination sites from coal ash pollution to 137 in 34 states, according to the researchers.

Of the 39 problem sites, 35 had groundwater-monitoring data available, which showed that wells located at or near the coal-waste disposal sites contained pollutants such as arsenic, selenium, lead and chromium, according to the article. The four other sites involved surface water discharges and spills.

There could be a bigger problem, according to the report. The study indicates that large coal ash-generating states like Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Indiana, Ohio, Mississippi, Missouri, New Mexico, and Tennessee, require no monitoring by law at coal ash ponds, at least while they are still in operation.

The coalition says the survey indicates that the EPA needs to regulate the waste produced by coal-fired power plants instead of leaving oversight to the states, according to the article.

The report is intended to influence the EPA as the agency begins public hearings next week on whether to regulate coal ash as a hazardous waste, put enforcement into the hands of federal and state officials, or institute new restrictions under which enforcement would come through lawsuits by states and individuals, reports the newspaper.

Depending on how those regulations are crafted, coal ash could be regulated like a hazardous waste, a move that has raised concerns among small and large businesses alike. Utilities have already begun lobbying the White House on the potential effect of the EPA’s proposed rules.

Environmental Leader notes that some recyclers have said that a hazardous waste classification carries a stigma and would raise liability fears, making it difficult to use coal ash in building materials.

More than 40 percent of coal waste is recycled, added to products such as cement and drywall, a practice known as “beneficial reuse,” while the remainder is disposed of in landfills or retention ponds, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The EPA’s proposed rules support beneficial reuse or recycling of coal ash in the manufacture of materials such as cement, concrete and asphalt.