New study shows widespread groundwater contamination from power plants across the nation

"This is a wake-up call for the nation. Using industry’s own data, our report proves that coal plants are trashing groundwater nearly everywhere they operate."

Image credit: Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

While it may not come as much of a surprise to anyone who is familiar with the dangers of fossil fuel pollution, a new study has found that nine out of ten power plants in the United States are polluting groundwater in toxic levels.

The study, which is the first comprehensive national study of coal ash pollution, was conducted by the Environmental Integrity Project with assistance from Earthjustice. The groups were able to analyze monitoring data for the first time due to new federal coal ash regulations that were issued in 2015.

Results of the study showed that groundwater near 244 of the 265 plants with monitoring data available contained unsafe levels of at least one chemical pollutant in coal ash. Several of the chemicals found have serious side effects. 52% of the plants had unsafe levels of arsenic, a known carcinogen which can also impair the brains of developing children. 60 percent of the plants had unsafe levels of lithium, which has been associated with neurological damage.

The data available is from roughly three-quarters of the coal power plants across the U.S., which include over 4,600 groundwater monitoring wells. The remaining coal power plants that do not yet have data available either closed their ash dumps before the rule went into effect or are eligible for an extension.

“At a time when the Trump EPA – now being run by a former coal lobbyist – is trying to roll back federal regulations on coal ash, these new data provide convincing evidence that we should be moving in the opposite direction: toward stronger protections for human health and the environment,” says Abel Russ, the lead author of the report.

Much of the contamination is due to the fact that coal ash waste ponds are poorly designed. Less than 5 percent of those studied have waterproof liners to prevent contaminants from leaching into the groundwater.

The following are the “Top 10” most contaminated sites:

  1. Texas. Water near the San Miguel Power plant showed at least 12 pollutants, including cadmium, which is a probable carcinogen, and lithium at concentrations more than 100 times above safe levels.
  2. North Carolina. Coal ash dumps near Duke Energy’s Allen Steam Station are leaking at least nine different pollutants including cobalt, a substance linked to thyroid damage, at concentrations more than 500 times above safe levels.
  3. Wyoming. Water near the Jim Bridger power plant has levels of lithium and selenium that exceed safe levels by more than 100 times.
  4. Wyoming. Groundwater near the Naughton power plant has levels of lithium and selenium exceeding safe levels by more than 100 times and arsenic at five times.
  5. Pennsylvania. Groundwater near New Castle Generating Station showed levels of arsenic at 372 times more than safe levels.
  6. Tennessee. Groundwater near the Allen Fossil Plant has arsenic at least 350 times safe levels and lead at four times safe levels.
  7. Maryland. groundwater near three NRG coal plants has at least eight pollutants, with lithium at more than 200 times above safe levels and molybdenum at more than 100 times higher than safe levels.
  8. Utah. groundwater near the Hunter Power plant has lithium at concentrations 228 times safe levels and cobalt at 26 times safe levels.
  9. Mississippi. Groundwater near the R.D. Morrow Sr. Generating Station showed lithium at 193 times safe levels, molybdenum at 171 times safe levels, and arsenic at three times safe levels.
  10. Kentucky. Groundwater near the Ghent Generating Station showed lithium at 154 times safe levels and radium at 31 times safe levels.

“This is a wake-up call for the nation. Using industry’s own data, our report proves that coal plants are trashing groundwater nearly everywhere they operate,” says Lisa Evans, Senior Counsel for Earthjustice.

Unfortunately, federal laws do not require power companies to test private drinking water wells so the levels of contamination in drinking water near coal ash dumps are unclear.


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