Report says fly ash sites leak chromium into water

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Two southwestern Pennsylvania fly ash disposal sites are among 28 such sites in 17 states that have contaminated groundwater by leaking toxic, cancer-causing hexavalent chromium, according to a new report by Earthjustice and two other environmental groups.

Unsafe hexavalent chromium levels were found in groundwater near a landfill used by Allegheny Energy's 1,710-megawatt Hatfield's Ferry power plant in Greene County; and around an unlined pond and landfill near the GenOn's Seward power plant in New Florence, Indiana County, the report found.

Another Pennsylvania fly ash disposal site, an unlined pond used by PPL's Martins Creek power plant in Northhampton County, in the eastern end of the state, was also on the report's list.

Hexavalent chromium was made famous by the 2000 film "Erin Brockovich."

The report released Tuesday calls for tighter drinking water limits for chromium and federal regulations designating coal fly ash as a hazardous waste. The report was released on the eve of scheduled Senate testimony by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson about the public health concerns of contaminated drinking water and hexavalent chromium exposure.

"It is now abundantly clear that EPA must control coal ash disposal to prevent the poisoning of our drinking water with hexavalent chromium," said Lisa Evans, Earthjustice senior administrative counsel.

Studies by the EPA, the state of California and the agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry have found that exposure in drinking water to small amounts of hexavalent chromium can increase human cancer risk.

Hexavalent chromium, the most toxic form of chromium, comprises almost all of the chromium that leaches from coal ash disposal sites, according to government and industry studies cited by Tuesday's report. Such chromium first made headlines in 1996 when Erin Brockovich sued Pacific Gas & Electric for poisoning the water supply of Hinkley, Calif., and won damages totaling $333 million for the town's 600 residents.

The study report by Earthjustice, Physicians for Social Responsibility and the Environmental Integrity Project found the threat of groundwater contamination by the chromium compound is present at hundreds of unlined coal ash sites in the U.S. It also notes that while many of the leaking ash disposal sites have undergone some federal Superfund or state remediation, in most cases the groundwater contamination has been left in place and there have been few attempts to monitor migration of the contaminated plume or protect well water users in the area.

Hexavalent chromium contamination at the Hatfield's Ferry power plant fly ash landfill was measured at 104 parts per billion, slightly above the federal drinking water standard of 100 parts per billion, but 5,200 times higher than a California proposal to reduce that state's drinking water standard to 0.02 parts per billion.

David Neurohr, an Allegheny Energy spokesman, said Tuesday he couldn't comment on the Earthjustice report because he hadn't seen it, but added that "we operate the landfill in compliance with DEP regulations."

The highest concentration of hexavalent chromium groundwater contamination from GenOn's 525-megawatt Seward power plant was measured at 330 parts per billion, three times the federal drinking water standard and 16,500 times above a proposed California standard.

Laurie Fickman, a spokeswoman for Houston, Texas-based GenOn, a recent merger of the electric power providers RRI and Mirant, said the company will review the report but offered no additional comment.

Coal ash, the waste produced by coal-burning power plants, also contains arsenic, lead, cadmium, mercury selenium and other cancer-causing chemicals.


Correction/Clarification: (Published February 3, 2011) A Wednesday story about fly ash disposal sites leaking cancer-causing hexavalent chromium into ground water should have attributed comments to Lisa Evans, Earthjustice senior administrative counsel. Her first name was incorrect in the article.

Don Hopey: dhopey@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1983.


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