New Report Reveals Extent of Coal Ash Pollution

A report just released by Clean Wisconsin provides compelling evidence that the “reusing” of coal ash throughout southeastern Wisconsin is affecting the safety of our groundwater, including water drawn from wells for drinking. And if it’s happening here, it’s happening wherever coal ash is “reused” in under-regulated ways.

Back-Scattered Electron Micrograph of Coal Fly Ash small
“Back-Scattered Electron Micrograph of Coal Fly Ash small” (Photo by wabeggs (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)
 The report explains that coal ash can be “encapsulated” within a material, say in concrete, or left as a “unencapsulated” fill for various construction projects. It is the second sort of reuse that has been under-reported and under-regulated and is likely causing the bulk of the pollution. The CW report shows that the closer groundwater is to a known coal ash reuse site of significant size, the higher the levels of both molybdenum and arsenic (and boron, sulfate and likely other toxic substances) tend to be. The study found some 1 million tons of “reused” coal ash put down in the area and states there is likely much more that has not been recorded.

According to the American Coal Ash Association (WE Energies is a member) , coal ash–what’s left of coal after it’s burnt for energy–is not a hazardous waste for its toxic materials are of too low a concentration to cause harm. Though the ACAA does say

“However, it is important to note that despite these relatively low concentrations, if improperly managed, any waste can have a negative impact on the environment.”

Coal ash is not federally regulated, and much evidence suggests that even states that do regulate it, like Wisconsin, don’t do it well enough. Coal ash contains all sorts of toxic and poisonous stuff, but if we call it “hazardous”, the coal burners will have to actually treat it like its toxic and that will make it expensive to handle and dispose of, an extra $1.5 billion a year, and make it harder to market. Coal is supposed to be a cheap fuel, and the less regulation there is the “cheaper” it is for the corporations who burn it. And it is cheap– if you ignore all the costs and consequences of mining and burning it.  Those consequences now include changing the climate and possibly making your well water unfit to drink. So far, the federal government, bowing to the coal lobby, has not done enough to crack down.

The Wisconsin DNR has long known about molybdenum-contaminated wells in southeastern Wisconsin, especially in areas close to WE Energies’ coal-burning power plant complex in Oak Creek. But the DNR has not found, it says, conclusive evidence linking the water pollution to known coal ash dumps. Clean Wisconsin says that the DNR failed to consider all the reused coal ash (at least 1.6 million tons) that has been put down over two decades in this area of the state.

Rather than address the most likely pollution-causing culprit (the reuse of WE Energies’ coal ash), Gov. Walker’s DNR asked the Department of Health Services to think about whether the 40 ppb level for molybdenum was really the correct enforcement level to protect health, as the EPA and other states had also previously determined.

In 2013 the DHS decided that –surprise!– 90 ppb was the level of molybdenum in drinking water considered safe. (One wonders if this decision was made by anyone at DHS who actually had to drink the contaminated water.) Even with the rather high new standard, one in five of the tested wells exceeded the 90 ppb limit.

As the Journal Sentinel reports, the DNR has not embraced the Clean Wisconsin report, calling it flawed for not considering the different ways coal ash can be recycled and failing to do groundwater monitoring and a study of groundwater flow. Perhaps the DNR did not read the Clean Wisconsin report as carefully as I did. The report does distinguish between the types of reuse and does consider naturally occurring rates of molybdenum and groundwater flow. In fact, the CW report found that pollution is higher where the groundwater actually flows:

“wells “downflow” of large coal reuse sites tended to have much higher levels of molybdenum.”

Among the ten recommendations in Clean Wisconsin’s important report is the final and most obvious one:  “Wisconsin should regulate hazardous coal ash as a hazardous waste.” Yes, we should. And the less of this hazardous waste we create, the better.  Just one more reason to move away from coal energy.  But under the current governing regime in the state we would do better to put our hopes in the EPA which is set to rule on the toxic status of coal ash next month. Here’s hoping the EPA is listening.

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