Oct 22, 2012

Extensive coal ash contamination found in US water supply

Recent data released by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) show that as many as 197 different sites across 37 states registered violations to federal drinking water statutes due to contamination from coal ash produced by power plants nearby.

Coal ash impoundment sites, called wet ash ponds, in some cases contained contaminant levels so toxic that in an event of a pond’s overflowing, the result would be a loss of human life. Nearby lakes and rivers, which are used by energy companies as a water source for cooling towers, are likewise heavily polluted.

The process of coal-burning in more than 430 different power plants across the US creates more than 140 million tons of ash per year–carrying toxins such as arsenic, lead and mercury which can settle in public areas and water supplies. More than half of the waste is simply stored in landfills, ponds and old mines, where leakage is common. Some 2,000 dump sites hold coal ash across the country.

The impact on human and environmental health can be devastating. The toxin arsenic alone is connected to several forms of cancer in humans as well as heart and lung disease.

In Zekiah Swamp, a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, more than 8.4 million tons of coal ash was found to be leaking into the ground water. The Moapa River Reservation, home to the Paiute Indian tribe in Nevada, has had 136 drinking water violations since 2010, and two in every three children living closest to the landfills nearby have asthma.

The EPA rated 45 ponds “high hazard,” meaning that if a rupture occurred, people would most likely die.

Separate water tests by North Carolina’s Duke University found several cases across the state where levels of contamination far exceeded EPA safe water standards. Some of the worst contaminated samples were drawn from primary sources of drinking water for metropolitan areas.

Mountain Island Lake, which provides water for the city of Charlotte and surrounding suburbs, contained levels of arsenic 25 times higher than the current EPA standards. Duke Energy's Riverbend Steam Station and two coal ash ponds are situated near the lake. The findings were published in the October edition of the journal Environmental Science & Technology.

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