Coal Ash Contaminates Groundwater at 91% of
 US Coal Plants, Tests Show

An analysis of water monitoring reports found unsafe levels of toxic substances near hundreds of coal ash sites, many of them in the Midwest and Southeast.

James Bruggers

MAR 4, 2019

Coal ash from the now-retired Allen Fossil Plant in Memphis, Tennessee, is among the worst groundwater polluters, a new analysis shows.

At a power plant in Memphis, Tennessee, coal ash waste that built up over decades has been leaching arsenic and other toxic substances into the groundwater.

The contamination, ranked as a top problem in a new national assessment of water testing at coal ash sites, is in a shallow aquifer for now. But below that lies a second aquifer that provides drinking water to more than 650,000 people, and there are concerns that the contamination could make its way into the deeper water supply the city relies on.

“We have one of the purest drinking water sources in the whole country, and now we’ll have arsenic and other coal ash compounds leaking into our water supply if things don’t get cleaned up,” said Scott Banbury, a Memphis resident and representative of the Sierra Club. “So getting rid of that ash is important.”

The scale of the Memphis problem emerged from industry reports on groundwater testing near ponds and landfills that store coal-burning wastes from power plants. These reports, required by recent regulations, show that polluted groundwater is a widespread problem, with unsafe levels of toxic contaminants linked to more than nine out of every 10 coal-fired power plants with monitoring data, about 91 percent. The Environmental Integrity Project and other advocacy groups compiled and analyzed the data in a report released Monday.

The worst contamination, according to the analysis, was at the San Miguel Power Plant south of San Antonio, Texas, with 12 pollutants above safe levels in groundwater. In Memphis, the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Allen Fossil Plant, which was shut down last year, is in the Top 10.

The report covers water testing at 265 existing and retired coal plants, comprising more than 550 individual coal ash ponds and dumps that have groundwater monitoring wells. That represents about three-fourths of the coal power plants in the country, according to the authors. Some plant owners were not required to make groundwater testing results public because they closed their ash dumps before the US Environmental Protection Agency’s first national rules on coal burning waste took effect in 2015, or because they were eligible for an exemption or extension of reporting deadlines.


“It’s everything we could get our hands on,” said the report’s lead author, Abel Russ, a senior attorney with the Environmental Integrity Project, which worked with Earthjustice on the report. The contamination is “widespread,” Russ said, and in many places, “groundwater may be unusable for decades or hundreds of years.”

In all, unsafe levels of contamination were reported in groundwater at sites in 39 states and Puerto Rico. Illinois has the most power plants with polluted ash storage sites with 16, followed by Texas, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, North Carolina and Missouri, all with more than 10.

Trump EPA Is Considering Weakening Standards

The results come as President Donald Trump’s EPA, led by former coal and energy industry lobbyist Andrew Wheeler, is weighing further changes to the Obama-era EPA rules with the goal of cutting utility compliance costs. Earlier, the Trump administration relaxed EPA coal ash rules in part by extending the deadline to stop using some coal ash ponds from next month to Oct. 31, 2020.

“The fact that we have now analyzed the data and found significant contamination at almost every coal ash site provides a strong record to oppose any future rollbacks,” said Lisa Evans, a senior attorney at Earthjustice.

Earthjustice last year won a lawsuit against EPA that will require the closure and cleanup of some 100 additional coal ash ponds left out of the 2015 rule. EPA is appealing.

An EPA spokesman on Friday did not comment on the agency’s plans for changing coal ash rules. On Monday, EPA said it was reviewing the environmental groups’ report and would not comment on it yet.

For decades, wastes from burning coal went unregulated by the federal government, leaving a patch of inconsistent state rules. The Obama administration in 2015 put in place national rules, favoring dry storage in landfills over wet storage in ponds. Those rules require utilities to conduct groundwater monitoring at ponds and landfills, close leaking ash ponds, clean up polluted groundwater and disclose their studies and actions.