Sixty seven coal plants across 22 states in the U.S. are reporting that toxic contamination in groundwater at their coal ash impoundments exceeds federal health standards, according to data from multiple utility filings obtained by a band of environmental groups.
In response, those groups on Wednesday filed a petition for review against the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler's rollbacks of Obama-era coal combustion residuals (CCR) requirements. The petition was filed by Earthjustice, The Environmental Integrity Project and Sierra Club, on behalf of Clean Water Action, Hoosier Environmental Council, Prairie Rivers Network, HEAL Utah and Waterkeeper Alliance.
CCR rules require restoration of those contaminated sites, but the EPA's July modifications, adopted at the behest of industry, could potentially push back clean up dates.
"At the same time that companies are admitting that contamination is bad and cleanup is required, the administration is giving industry additional time to operate the leaking impoundments," Lisa Evans, Senior Counsel at Earthjustice told Utility Dive.
Last weekend and early into this week, utilities began posting notices indicating they had found "statistically significant increases in hazardous metals in their groundwater, and that these metals are exceeding the federal standards" on groundwater pollution, according to Evans.
The majority of utilities reported toxic levels of one or more pollutants as well as aquifer violations, which mandate the bottom of ash pits be at least five feet above groundwater.
"The majority of these impoundments are sitting in the groundwater," said Evans. So, "there's greater threat because contamination can directly enter the groundwater, and you'll get more contamination at a faster rate."
Those violations require utilities to clean up the areas through a public restoration plan, meaning groundwater pollution and subsequent mitigation actions need to be publicly addressed.
"It's gone beyond the simple step of just discussing contaminated groundwater or pointing fingers at sites that are contaminated," said Evans. "Now real work has to be done to begin to restore these sites."
A commonality among the filings is the ineffectiveness of storing coal ash in unlined storage pits, a point environmentalists have been pushing for some time.
Utilities have "all chosen to dispose of coal ash in unlined dumps, whether they're landfills or coal ash ponds, and now we know that most of them are leaking," said Evans.
Amid federal rollbacks, a U.S Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in August found the requirements laid out in the 2015 CCR rules didn't go far enough in preventing groundwater pollution. The ruling specifically addressed provisions in the Obama-era rule that allow unlined pits to continue taking in waste and exempt ponds at retired coal plant sites from the same regulations as active sites.
Those concerns came to a head this hurricane season, when Hurricane Florence caused over 2,000 cubic yards of coal ash from a landfill to spill into the nearby Sutton Lake cooling pond. The lake later overflowed, leaking the toxic chemicals into the Cape Fear River. How much the spill contaminated the river was a point of contention between local waterkeepers and the state.
Part of the EPA's changes included reinterpreting utility deadlines to file groundwater reports, so data notices will continue to be posted throughout the next three months. Two coal-heavy states, Illinois and Indiana, still have not filed their data, though a report in November found waste in Illinois was leaking into groundwater from several unlined pits.
"What we're reporting is a snapshot in time, but we expect these numbers to increase substantially," said Evans. The EPA did not release the "phase two" of its CCR rollbacks in December, as anticipated, but will likely propose modifications early next year.
The full list of data on sites reported so far spans from Iowa to Florida. The table lays out which chemicals exceed groundwater standards, if those units are lined and if they are in compliance with the five feet above an aquifer standard. Landfills were not required to report on the aquifer separation requirements or note whether their site is lined or unlined.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the impoundment that leaked the coal ash into Sutton Lake was unlined. The spill came from a lined landfill. An earlier version also referenced an article from the Statesville Record & Landmark about levels of contaminants in water at a school in North Carolina. There were unsubstantiated claims in the story so its reference was removed.