Duke Study Documents Coal Ash Leakage into Groundwater

Graphic credit: Environmental Science and Technology
Graphic credit: Environmental Science and Technology

by James A. Bacon

New tests and analysis conducted by Duke University add to the body of evidence indicating that heavy metals in coal ash ponds leach into the water and and make their way into surrounding water, sometimes in excess of federal standards for drinking water and aquatic life.

The researchers sampled surface water near seven coal ash pits and seeps from berms ringing the unlined ponds at seven sites in four states, including Dominion Virginia Power’s Bremo and Chesapeake power stations, and combined it with data from 156 shallow groundwater monitoring wells in North Carolina. The scientists used “forensic tracers” — isotopes of boron and strontium created in coal combustion and not found in a natural environment — to track the movement of metals from the coal ash ponds to nearby waters.

The research, which was funded by the Southern Environmental Law Center, appeared in Environmental Science and Technology, a peer-reviewed journal.

Read the study here. And read the more-comprehensible-to-the-layman coverage by the Richmond Times-Dispatch here. Writes Robert Zullo with the T-D:

At Bremo, samples were taken from Holman Creek, a leak from the ash pond wall that was running toward the river and the river itself downstream of the power plant. … One test, for example, showed arsenic at a concentration of 45.4 parts per billion, more than 45 times background levels and 4.5 times the federal Environmental Protection Agency drinking water maximum contaminant level of 10 parts per billion. Another test showed arsenic at 10.7 parts per billion.

Bacon’s bottom line:

Coal Combustion Residuals, of which coal ash is one type, is the largest source of industrial waste in the United States. Yet the processes by which leachate from the coal residue works its way into surrounding waters appears not to be terribly well understood. The federal government has ordered a particular set of remedies — treat and drain the water, then cap or landfill the mineral residue — in what appears to be a state of imperfect knowledge. State governments have the authority to exceed federal standards, which environmental groups are pressing them to do. They are dealing with the same imperfect knowledge.

When the water is drained from the coal ash, the next question is what to do with the mineral residue. Dominion proposes consolidating the material on site and capping it to prevent rainwater from seeping through. Environmental groups, concerned that groundwater migrating through the ash pits could contaminate nearby waters, want Dominion to dispose of it in lined landfills — a process that Dominion says could cost rate payers $3 billion.

The Duke study is potentially important because, as the authors write in their abstract, “Given the large number of coal ash impoundments throughout the United States, the systematic evidence for leaking of coal ash ponds shown in this study highlights potential environmental risks from unlined coal ash ponds.”

We’re talking about what could be a genuine problem here in Virginia. We can quantify the very real, $3 billion cost of disposing of the coal ash in lined landfills, but it is exceedingly difficult to put a dollar value on the risk to human and aquatic life posed by leaving the mineral in capped but unlined pits. I’m not sure how we go about even conducting that analysis. I would like to think that any regulatory decisions are made after rigorous study and thought. But that’s probably too much to ask in a world in which political decisions are made under time pressure on the basis of ideology and self-interest.

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15 responses to “Duke Study Documents Coal Ash Leakage into Groundwater”

  1. I can only make a philosophical comment to try to put it in perspective.

    Historically Congress/EPA have exempted many mining/extraction wastes from regulations due to the high costs. Congress have historically been relatively strict against petrochemical industry pollution due to public pressure (Love Canal, etc), on the other hand, Congress has been relatively lax on utilities, municipalities, and extractive industries. In essence Congress/EPA usually takes a reactive approach, not a proactive approach.

    So coal ash is not the only waste that there are piles of laying around for decades leaching into the environment without liners. The solution becomes risk assessment approach – what makes sense in hindsight?

    The question here: Is EPA going to look at the Duke findings and say, “by gosh we totally blew it on coal ash…coal ash is way more hazardous than we thought when we wrote the recent coal ash rulings.” I don’t know the answer, but my guess is the Duke results do not change the EPA’s mind.

  2. LarrytheG Avatar

    Well after decades of burning coal – and ample opportunity for the utilities that burn coal – to commission studies and get the facts – and take a proactive risk-based approach – implicating the often industry-attacked EPA as the guilty party is laughable.

    Dominion has had LOTS of opportunity to commission studies and come back with their own recommended – cost-effective approaches and instead has basically stonewalled and allowed the Virginia DEQ to “defend” their “we donj’t know and we don’t want to know” approach to something that ought not be rocket science to start with. If you dump millions of tons of reactive heavy metals on the ground and let rain come down on it – and “wonder” what happens or worse tell the public you don’t know but you want to do the “right” thing…

    all I can say is the whole thing is a joke.

    why should a private organization – the SELC – PAY from private donations to get the answers to questions that DVP and DEQ should have done to start with?

    Finally – how many solar panels could you buy with 3 billion dollars worth of subsidies in Virginia?

    Sorry – blaming this on the EPA at the same time we have folks blaming them for the “war on coal” is pretty lame.

    Why do taxpayers have to pay to prove whether or not something is harmful or not – rather than the company that is dumping it and claiming they don’t know and it will cost ratepayers to find out? as if ratepayers are not also taxpayers?

    1. Larry wrote: “Dominion has had LOTS of opportunity to commission studies and come back with their own recommended – cost-effective approaches and instead has basically stonewalled and allowed the Virginia DEQ to “defend” their “we don’t know and we don’t want to know” approach.”

      I have seen no evidence to support this view of what happened.

      What actually happened is that EPA announced the new rules. Then DEQ announced how it would administer those rules. And then Dominion made its plans based upon what the regulators told them. Only then could the environmentalists find out what was going on, so only then could they start raising concerns that the EPA/DEQ approach was not adequate.

      Why would it be Dominion’s job to commission scientific studies for the purpose of setting standards? EPA has been working on these regulations for a decade. Should Dominion second-guess EPA?

      Sometimes we can’t figure out what we need to know until the regulators publish the rules, utilities start implementing things based on those rules, and environmentalists can get a look at what’s proposed. In the political/media world, everybody wants to paint someone else as a bad guy. But in most cases, I think all parties are just trying to do their job.

      1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

        ” Only then could the environmentalists find out what was going on, so only then could they start raising concerns that the EPA/DEQ approach was not adequate.”

        This statement has to be wrong. Under the APA, the EPA must give notice of the proposed rules (ditto under state law for the DEQ). Environmental groups, like anyone else, had the ability to study the proposed rules and file comments and studies. If they were surprised, they shouldn’t have been.

        This is the very reason I have heartburn with both McAuliffe and Obama’s government by executive edict. There is no chance for public input and no due process. The APA protects all of us.

  3. LarrytheG Avatar

    why is it up to the regulators to ensure than Dominion is a good steward of the environment to start with?

    we play this both ways. On one hand Dominion pays money to oppose EPA regulations then they hid behind EPA for not enforcing stricter limits when things go sideways.

    What keeps Dominion from coming out with their own study and defend their approach to protecting the environment rather than first seeking to demonize regulation then claiming it’s not their fault they were not effectively regulated and that’s why there is environmental damage.

    that’ seem s the worst of the worst in terms of failing to be responsible then total hypocrisy after the fact.

    why do you need the “regulators” to “know” in the first place?

    I’m not “painting” bad guys.. I just think it’s total hypocrisy to play both sides of this rather than taking responsibility, doing your own studies, having them peer-reviewed and defending them – … then moving forward one way or the other rather than continuing to hide behind the same regulators that are attacked?

    even worse – the defenders of DVP here are the SAME folks who make the argument that regulations increase the cost of business!

    AND who intimate that with the right administration that we’d roll back these regulations…

  4. Hope you are not referring to me as a DVP defender. I argued against coal ash disposal as a non-hazardous waste decades ago in New Jersey. At that time, I got over-ruled by EPA Region2 and NJ DEP who sided with the industry argument that coal ash is an extremely valuable building material as road underlay etc. All I am saying, and I do not think EPA would disagree, that the utility industry has in past years enjoyed support from Congress who has turned somewhat of a deaf ear to the eco-problems of coal.

    So where we are now is coping with the past mis-management. Also EPA recently ruled utilities can cap coal ash ponds in place up to a certain date deadline. DVP is simply trying to comply, of course realizing that date is the end of big utility leniency policy on coal ash.

  5. LarrytheG Avatar

    No Tbill – I’m not but I am pointing out that DVP and everyone else
    who knows about heavy metals and what happens to ANY materials like tailings from titanium in Piney River when piled up and left open to rainfall – KNOWS what happens – it’s not like it’s a mystery that needs “more study”.

    saying – after the fact, decades after the fact that “not much is known” is not exactly forthright in my view especially when ….

    ” For decades, utilities have lobbied Congress and contributed to political campaigns to fight any federal regulation of coal ash ponds. Asked why the EPA did not regulate coal ash ponds years ago, McCarthy said the agency had been bound by limits set by Congress.”

    I just find it highly insulting that electric utilities who have fought regulation for decades now argue that it’s EPAs fault for not regulating and that they “did not know”.

    they knew – they could have commissioned their own studies long ago – had them peer reviewed by credible researchers and then participated in setting regulations they could live with .

    instead they engaged in this adversarial contest with the EPA to stop coal ash regulation – for decades – then – after the truth finally does come out – claim that EPA did not regulate when they should have.

    that’s just not right in my mind and I lose all sympathy for DVP because clearly they’ve cynically not really done the right thing.

  6. “Instead they engaged in this adversarial contest with the EPA to stop coal ash regulation – for decades,”

    Do you know this for a fact? Can you cite a source?

  7. LarrytheG Avatar

    ” The EPA sent its report to President Bill Clinton’s White House Office of Management and Budget for review. An EPA employee involved in the internal debate told the Center for Public Integrity “it really hit a brick wall at OMB.”

    The administration was flooded with letters from electric utilities and visits from their lobbyists warning that regulating coal ash as hazardous waste would lead to economic hardship for them and their customers. New standards would increase the cost of disposing of coal ash waste, an extra cost the EPA estimated at about $1 billion per year. But industry representatives argued the cost would be astronomically higher — perhaps upwards of $13 billion.

    After the lobbying onslaught, EPA backed away from regulating coal ash as hazardous waste in 2000. But the agency promised to issue guidelines to help states oversee it more effectively — a critical step, since most states lacked even basic safeguards for coal ash disposal sites.

    But the EPA didn’t follow through. And without federal guidelines, states continued with business as usual. Five years later, a report prepared for EPA’s Office of Solid Waste found that most states didn’t require monitoring the impact of coal ash disposal sites on groundwater, more than half didn’t require liners, and more than a quarter didn’t even require something as basic as dust controls at coal ash landfills. The report also found that most of the coal ash produced in the top 25 coal-consuming states could legally be disposed of in a way that directly threatened drinking water supplies in underground aquifers.

    A consensus for regulation grows

    Meanwhile, even within the EPA, evidence was mounting that coal ash posed a growing threat to environmental and human health.

    In 2007, a draft assessment was prepared for the EPA titled “Human and Ecological Risk Assessment of Coal Combustion Wastes” that found some unlined coal ash impoundments pose a cancer risk 2,000 times above what the government considers acceptable. The assessment found that the use of a composite liner — a multi-layered liner like those required in municipal waste landfills — significantly reduced the risk of exposure to health-threatening pollution. However, most states don’t require such liners for coal ash impoundments.

    That same year, a report by the EPA Office of Solid Waste tallied up the number of cases nationwide where coal ash was found to have caused environmental damage, documenting 24 cases of proven damages caused by coal ash and another 43 potential damage cases related to coal ash. Most of those cases involve toxic contamination from coal ash impoundments leaching into groundwater, rivers, and lakes. (For a map with more details about confirmed U.S. damage cases, click here.)

    The EPA’s internal studies were complemented by a growing body of research by independent scientists and advocacy groups documenting the environmental and health consequences of coal ash.

    Earlier this year, for example, the Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice released a report titled “Out of Control: Mounting Damages From Coal Ash Waste Sites” that found serious water contamination problems from coal ash dumps at 31 locations in 14 states. The report noted that the contamination is concentrated in communities with family poverty rates above the national median.

    Recently the EPA also acknowledged that toxic elements like arsenic, chromium, and selenium can leach out of unlined coal ash dumps and into local water supplies in much higher concentrations than was earlier believed. After 20 years of using a testing method that the EPA’s own Science Advisory Board argued was low-balling the contamination risk, the agency recently began using an updated test that found the level of toxic contaminants leaching into water clearly crossed the threshold for designating coal ash as a hazardous waste.

    “These unregulated sites present a clear and present danger to public health and the environment,” said Earthjustice attorney and former EPA official Lisa Evans. “If law and science are to guide our most important environmental decisions, as EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson has promised, we need to regulate these hazards before they get much worse.”

    Hitting another brick wall

    But Washington’s latest effort to regulate coal ash — spurred by the TVA disaster — has again met massive resistance from a familiar array of powerful political interests.

    Last October, the EPA sent a draft regulation to the White House Office of Management and Budget. The proposed rules immediately became the target of a massive lobbying onslaught by electric utilities and energy interests determined to prevent coal ash from being regulated as hazardous waste.

    The Charleston Gazette reported that OMB held 30 meetings about the rules with industry officials compared to only 12 with environmental and public health groups. The intense lobbying campaign was notable because of the electric utility industry’s already considerable clout in Congress: One of the most politically generous, it’s contributed more than $9 million to members’ campaigns during the 2009-2010 election cycle so far, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

    Joining the lobbying effort were state agencies and federal lawmakers who voiced concern about the cost of strict regulation and how it would affect the recycling of coal ash into products and its use as fill in construction projects.

    Many of the congressional defenders of coal ash represent states where the toxic waste has been implicated in environmental damages. For example, a Facing South analysis found more than 50 proven and suspected coal ash damage cases in the states represented by the more than 90 senators and representatives who wrote to the Obama administration opposing the regulation of coal ash as hazardous waste.

    As the political battle raged behind closed doors, the latest push to regulate coal ash seemed like it might again be derailed. The EPA originally said it would roll out a proposed rule for public comment by the end of 2009, but the release was postponed with the agency blaming the delay on the “complexity of the analysis.”

    The new rules were then supposed to be released in April 2010, but were put off again.

    Finally, earlier this month the EPA released the rules to the public. But instead of issuing a clear standard that would treat coal ash as a hazardous waste as it originally planned, the agency released two options: one that would empower the federal government to oversee the material like other hazardous waste, and one that would treat coal ash like ordinary trash and leave oversight up to the states.”


    there are quite a few very similar reports including one from the Wall street Journal:

    ” White House, EPA at Odds Over Coal-Waste Rules
    Agency’s Move to Designate Ash as Hazardous Is Slowed by Regulatory Czar’s Assessment of Impact on Industry
    Updated Jan. 9, 2010 12:01 a.m. ET
    The Obama administration is engaged in an unusual internal spat as the White House and Environmental Protection Agency tussle over how to handle millions of tons of waste from coal-fired power plants.

    Utility and environmental groups are watching the coal-ash dispute as an indicator of the administration’s pliability on the regulatory front.

    Awareness of potential coal-ash problems burst into the news at the end of 2008, when a dike broke at a pond near a power plant in Tennessee. Above, a home destroyed in the incident. ENLARGE
    Awareness of potential coal-ash problems burst into the news at the end of 2008, when a dike broke at a pond near a power plant in Tennessee. Above, a home destroyed in the incident. ASSOCIATED PRESS
    The White House has already backed several new environmental initiatives that have drawn sharp reactions from industry, particularly EPA findings last month that designated carbon dioxide as a dangerous pollutant.

    But environmental groups are pointing to a flurry of industry meetings on the coal-ash issue as evidence that utilities and other companies are using a foothold within the White House to fight back against potentially far-reaching new rules.”

    but again – my point is that nothing has ever prevented DVP or other utilities from commissioning their own studies – having those studies peer reviewed by credential researchers and then come out with what they DO support – as opposed to do no studies, attacking the ones that have been done and in general lobbying to stall regulation. DEQ, in particular is toothless, almost pathetic in standing up for what should be done.

  8. I’m not going to attempt to argue with LarryG on this, he has a viewpoint shared by many. However he glosses over a very important detail. My recollection is, the big lobbying fight was, as Larry says, over whether coal ash was “hazardous waste” for purposes of such cleanup laws as RECRA, which exposed businesses to enormous cleanup costs on property they owned or used whether or not they caused the original pollution. The importance of this is, RECRA requires site restoration to a much higher standard than mere burying of the waste or polluting agent. Some would say this was one of the greatest overreaches of the environmentalist movement, others would defend it as an entirely justified first step to undoing the ills of the past, but in any case the difference between pollution cleanup being subject to RECRA or not is a large order of magnitude, and that’s what the heavy lobbying was all about. The most intense lobbying, as I recall, was not from electric utilities but from gas utilities with a history of involvement in “manufactured gas” which was made by heating coal, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries before the advent of natural gas extraction and transportation from the southwest; these old municipal gas manufacturing sites often were built on huge landfills from their own ash residue. As Larry says, “After the lobbying onslaught, EPA backed away from regulating coal ash as hazardous waste in 2000. ”

    So why didn’t DVP lead the way in doing their own studies and cleaning up these old ash ponds before they were required to do so? What Larry and others seem to forget here is that DVP, like most heavily regulated utilities, CANNOT simply go out and commission its own studies and do more in the way of cleanup as indicated by those studies if it’s more than required by the applicable State and federal regulations — because almost certainly those additional costs will be criticized as unjustified and disallowed by regulators in DVP’s next rate cases. This is a situation in which the utility cannot easily do what it suspects or even knows it ought to do: petition for environmental law and regulations to be made more stringent, thus requiring its own compliance with a higher standard — because if it does that, it will be attacked by intervenors and regulators for “needlessly” driving up utility rates. So, typically, the utility sits out the fight between the various interest groups over an environmental regulation and simply resigns itself to compliance at the lowest feasible cost. Only when the cost of compliance is likely to cause a significant dislocation in operating practice or a significant jump in rates or a significant competitive disadvantage to the particular utility will you see a utility actively lobbying in opposition to the change.

    What happened in the case of declaring coal ash to be “hazardous waste,” however, was that there was a widespread industry consensus that RECRA, the “Love Canal cleanup” law, was never intended to deal with such low-grade pollution as coal ash, and that the expansion of RECRA’s reach by EPA regulation as proposed was out of line, an aberration, an over-reach of the law that would cause serious economic harm across the board, and therefore should be fought hard by utilities and other industries with a coal-use history.

    My point is, Larry is wrong to say, “nothing has ever prevented DVP or other utilities from commissioning their own studies.” They have a strong economic incentive not to do so. That’s the way the regulatory system works.

  9. LarrytheG Avatar

    My friend Acbars argument is persuasive but not totally convincing and here’s why.

    Anyone can now go find the history of the coal ash issue and yes – cleanup costs were an issue but unlike most other permanently damaged sites that became SuperFund sites – the utilities wanted essentially a waiver for their kind of waste.

    Cost – yes – and when we talk about subsidies for solar – we totally ignore these de-facto subsidies for coal.

    Finally – on the studies. I’m not buying the idea that there is no way for the utility industry or DVP to have studies done. They have a part of their company – people paid and resources expended in developing their environmental policies and responses – whether it’s the routes of powerlines or pipelines or what kind of technology to use to capture pollution from their smokestacks and discharge pipes. The SCC is going to stop them from finding out the best way to prevent pollution?

    geeze – guy

    let me ask how much money DVP has spent on lobbying and how that money apparently the SCC allows… and not money for studies?

    Who paid for the bogus VPI CPP study the SCC and the GOP trumpeted before UVA showed just how flawed it was?

    try again …. cuz this explanation did not fly!


    My original point – that DVP pays tremendous money to lobby – and other money to argue against regulation – then later when a 3rd party study does what they should have done to start with – they back up and claim it’s the EPAs fault for not regulating when they should have – AND that becomes their EXCUSE for then not having to pay cleanup costs.

    “We did not know.. and EPA did not regulate so it’s not our fault land we should not have to pay to clean up”.

  10. Since these sites in fact exist, the practical question is what makes sense as far as clean-up? The answer to that question is site-specific.

    If we concede the groundwater has been already been impacted, then that implies many of the water soluble contaminants may have already been leached out. Also removing the ash may not fix the subsurface contamination which is like a slow moving train wreck. I am hearing a lot of request for punitive action against Dominion, that includes mandating the most expensive clean-up methods. But EPA and DEQ are apparently not asking for that approach in all cases.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      I think assuming that all the contaminates have already leeched out is a stretch – if we talking about a huge pile; more likely it will “bleed” as a permanently and forever as continuing source of contamination – as we know what happens with other tailings that leech from other industries.

      I’m NOT in favor of punitive – but AM in favor of developing real facts from which to KNOW the consequences of leaving in place – even with a cap.

      DVP was more than willing to NOT KNOW and so was DEQ.

      Only when a 3rd party actually paid to find out – did we actually start to know .

      That kind of process where DVP and DEQ drag their feet then others develop the info – then DVP and DEQ turn around and blame the EPA for not setting standards and regulating – even though DVP was among those who argued against setting standard and regulating … well .. it’s an affront to responsible behavior and due diligence.

  11. LarrytheG Avatar

    By the way – what Duke did was not brand new cutting edge science. Isotope tracing is a fairly common technique used these days for landfills and oil spills and many other circumstances where there is a need to establish the identity of the source of some contaminate or foreign material that may have migrated from one location to another.

    It’s a known discipline available to any company or any environmental agency actually seeking to find the facts.

    It could have been used at the Possum Point site – from the get go – and probably should have been..

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