Dirty Water Under the Bridge
The coal ash can be handled either by “wet” or dry processes. The “wet” process involves discharging the ash and water into ponds.
“These ponds can be the size of football fields, holding a stew of coal ash and water,” said Al Armendariz, a senior campaign representative for the Sierra Club in Texas. Some of the water evaporates, “some of it is eventually released to rivers and streams, and some of it can seep straight down, contaminating groundwater.
“It is a very unsophisticated way to manage a waste stream,” the former EPA regional administrator said.
Toxic wastes that don’t go into such ponds often are reburied in the strip-mined areas from which the coal had been taken. The residue is covered with earth and replanted. But such residue doesn’t eventually degrade. “The stuff stays there forever,” one researcher said.
According to the report, nearly 70 percent of coal plants in the United States that discharge coal ash and scrubber wastes are allowed to dump unlimited amounts of many such chemicals into waterways. More than a third of the plants are not required even to monitor the discharges. And nearly half the plants, researchers said, “are discharging toxic pollution with an expired Clean Water Act permit.”
Smith said he was stunned by the number of plants operating without valid permits. In Texas, he said, “one of the consequences of the [Gov.] Rick Perry small-government approach is that we no longer have adequate staff to police the permits and inspect the plants and make sure that there is no ongoing air or water pollution.”
The toxic soup of power plant wastewater can lead to heavy concentrations of dangerous chemicals in waterways. The report cited Texas’ Martin Creek Reservoir, where just eight months of wastewater discharge from Luminant’s Martin Lake coal plant killed off 90 percent of some types of fish within two years, “and largemouth bass and bluegill could no longer reproduce.” Even several years after the discharges stopped, researchers found that fish from the lake “were riddled with dead or dying tissue in their internal organs.”
Almost 40 percent of coal plants that discharge wastewater do so within five miles of a public water intake; a much larger percentage discharge close to public wells. “As the EPA has documented,” the report said, “the scope of this pollution is staggering.” Nearly half the waterways receiving coal waste have water quality worse than recommended by the EPA and a fifth “violate standards for drinking water.”
The report didn’t rank states or power plants for their wastewater discharge quality, because so little information is available on the toxic contents of that waste. In Texas, for instance, only one of 13 coal plant permits reviewed included limits for arsenic, lead, or mercury.
The EPA finally began studying power plant wastewater discharges in 2007 but still hadn’t issued any rules. So EIP and Earthjustice sued on behalf of the Sierra Club and Defenders of Wildlife. Duggan represented the plaintiffs.
The EPA “settled fairly quickly,” she said. The agency agreed to review the coal plant wastewater standards and make a decision on what was needed. But the EPA made no agreement about what the standards would be. Depending on what happens with the proposed rules, that could conceivably be the aim of a future lawsuit, Duggan said.
The EPA’s own administrative record, she said, makes such an excellent case for strong regulations “that it will be difficult for them legally to [choose] weaker options that contradict all the technical data they’ve gathered.” Some of the regulatory options offered by the EPA include ending most “wet” disposal of coal waste.
Environmental groups aren’t the only organizations expressing concern over the damages done to the environment, to people, and to wildlife by coal plant wastewater pollution.