New filings with the Environmental Protection Agency reveal groundwater contamination has been discovered at numerous utility sites of unlined coal ash ponds at coal-burning power plants.
The contamination is reported at dozens of plants owned by major utilities such as AEP, Duke Energy, Xcel Energy, the Tennessee Valley Authority and others that complied with filings and made them as of last Friday. Some of the pits show signs of radioactivity levels several times higher than federal drinking water standards.
The EPA, under the Obama administration ordered monitoring wells to be drilled at the unlined pits and ponds and required annual reports to be filed.
So far, no reports have been filed showing such contamination at the six such sites in Oklahoma. However, the filings might not have been made.
Oklahoma has such pits at OGE’s Sooner Plant at Red Rock, the Hugo plant at Fort Towson, the Muskogee Plant at Fort Gibson, Northeastern at Oologah, GRDA plant at Chouteau and the Big Fork Ranch plant at Ponca City.
The Northeastern plant’s coal ash pits at Oologah had previously been listed as being contaminated with such pollutants as arsenic, barium, chromium, lead, selenium, vanadium, thallium, sulfate and high pH.
Three other sites with problems are across the state lines with Arkansas, Kansas and Missouri. The Riverton Power station at Riverton, Kansas, owned by the Empire District Electric Company had an ash disposal bond considered by the EPA to be in poor condition.
A similar report was made for the Asbury Power plant in Asbury, Missouri, again an operation owned by Empire District. The Flint Creek Plant at Gentry, Arkansas was also listed as a problem. Its owner is SWEPCVO/AEP/Arkansas.
According to Earthjustice, which analyzed Duke Energy’s results, there were “startlingly high levels of radioactivity at 11 out of 18 plants.” And the environmental advocacy group also says Duke appears to have taken steps to obscure the findings by not summarizing its groundwater monitoring results in a table, as is customary.
Earthjustice Senior Attorney Lisa Evans said the utility included them in more than 20,000 pages of lab results.
“There’s no dispute that the underlying groundwater is being contaminated. We see that clearly,” said Duke University professor Avner Vengosh, who researches the effects of coal ash and has reviewed some of the new data. “The real question is whether it’s migrating toward people or wells next to (coal plants).”
Vengosh added that the discovery at some sites of radium at levels far exceeding drinking water standards — which can increase the risk of cancer — were of particular concern. It appears to mark the first time coal ash has been associated with radioactivity in groundwater, he said.
Duke Energy spokeswoman Erin Culbert noted that government-sponsored research has shown most coal ash does not have radioactive elements. She said the elevated radium levels reported at some Duke plants reflected raw data that had not been analyzed to determine if the contamination was naturally occurring or came from another source.
U.S. coal plants produce about 100 million tons annually of ash and other waste, much of which ends up in unlined disposal ponds prone to leak. Some have been in use for decades.
Mark McCullough, executive vice president at AEP, said the company needed more data to decide which sites will need to close.
“These (monitoring) wells that are close to the sites are telling us something, and we are committed to doing the hard work and to understand where the real source is and what it is,” McCullough said.