EPA faces suit from 11 groups over coal ash

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Eleven environmental organizations are suing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to force it to better regulate toxic coal ash and citing recent groundwater contamination at 29 coal ash dump sites in 16 states, including two in Western Pennsylvania.

According to the EPA's own data, coal ash has caused contamination of groundwater at coal-fired power plants in Homer City, Indiana County, and near New Castle, Lawrence County.

Earthjustice, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of the other groups Thursday in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., said in a release that the EPA hasn't updated coal ash disposal and control regulations in more than 30 years and that it continues to delay new rules despite recent evidence of "leaking waste ponds, poisoned groundwater supplies and threats to public health."

Coal ash is produced mainly by coal-fired power plants and contains a mixture of toxic chemicals and compounds, Earthjustice said, including arsenic, lead, hexavalent chromium, manganese, mercury, selenium and cadmium.

The EPA data, based on a 2010 questionnaire sent to 700 fossil- and nuclear-fueled power plants to asses water discharges, show ash from GenOn's 60-year-old, 330-megawatt New Castle power plant in West Pittsburg, Lawrence County, has contaminated groundwater with arsenic.

The 1,884-megawatt Homer City power plant operated by Midwest Generation EME LLC and owned by General Electric, uses 19 ponds or landfills to dispose of its ash and, according to the EPA, has contaminated groundwater with iron, lead, manganese and sulfate.

GenOn, which announced in March it will close the New Castle power plant in April 2015, did not return calls requesting comment. Midwest Generation EME, operator of the 43-year-old power plant 50 miles east of Pittsburgh, also did not return calls.

The environmental groups' lawsuit seeks an order to force the EPA to set deadlines for review and revision of coal ash regulations, as well as changes to tests done to determine if the waste is hazardous under federal law.

"The numbers of coal ash ponds and landfills that are contaminating water supplies continues to grow, yet nearby communities still do not have effective federal protection," said Lisa Evans, an Earthjustice attorney.

Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project and a former EPA regulator, said the dumping of toxic coal ash is on the rise. In 2010, he said, toxic heavy metals in power plant ash disposal topped 113 million pounds, a nearly 10 percent increase from 2009.

In September 2010, the EPA held public hearings in Pittsburgh and six other cities across the nation on a proposal to federally regulate coal ash for the first time, a proposal that the coal and power industries opposed. Industry leaders at the hearing said federal regulation would be costly, hurt the industry, cost jobs and increase electric rates.

Mr. Schaeffer said EPA's proposed standards for safe disposal, including a plan to close unsafe ash ponds within five years, "have gone nowhere."

The nation's power plants produce approximately 150 million tons of ash a year, about 20 tons of that in Pennsylvania.

nation - region - health

Don Hopey: dhopey@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1983. First Published April 6, 2012 12:00 AM


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