Coal ash sites called danger to neighbors

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Five unlined coal ash disposal sites in Pennsylvania are among 210 in the nation that pose an extremely high cancer risk for nearby residents who get their drinking water from wells, according to a new analysis of a 2002 federal report.

The high-risk coal ash impoundments in Pennsylvania analyzed by a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report are Allegheny Energy's Mitchell power plant in Washington County and Hatfield's Ferry plant in Greene County; GPU Service Corp.'s Shawville power plant in Clearfield County and Keystone power plant in Armstrong County; and Metropolitan Edison's Portland power plant in Northampton County.

None of those ash disposal sites has a synthetic liner to prevent toxic pollutants from draining into groundwater that is tapped by local residents' wells.

Two nonprofit groups -- the Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice --analyzed the EPA report and found that people living near the unlined coal ash impoundments have a one in 50 chance of getting cancer from drinking water contaminated with arsenic, one of the most common pollutants found in coal ash. Most federal health regulations require that the risk of contracting cancer from pollutants be limited to one in 100,000 or one in 1 million.

The EPA risk assessment report, done in 2002 but not released in full until earlier this year, also indicates that those living near the ash disposal sites are at increased risk of liver, kidney, stomach and lung damage due to exposure to toxic metals like cadmium, cobalt, lead and other pollutants that show up in coal ash leaching at levels far above U.S. health standards. Such impoundments also pose an extreme danger to wildlife and ecosystems.

Eric Schaeffer, director and founder of the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project and former head of civil enforcement for the EPA, said the report's release is timely because Congress and the Obama administration are considering federal regulation of the ash disposal sites.

"Power industry lobbyists would rather keep the public in the dark about the risk from coal ash disposal," Mr. Schaeffer said. "It's up to EPA to turn the lights on and regulate these hazards."

The state Department of Environmental Protection said in 2007 that it hadn't documented groundwater pollution at any of the Pennsylvania sites, but couldn't provide updated assessments yesterday. Teresa Tandori, a DEP spokeswoman, said the state monitors groundwater at all active ash disposal sites in the state.

Doug Colafella, an Allegheny Energy spokesman, said the Mitchell and Hatfield's Ferry ash landfills are in compliance with DEP regulations and undergo groundwater monitoring quarterly. A 423-acre landfill expansion and 10-year waste disposal permit was approved by the DEP for Hatfield's Ferry earlier this week.

Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and Maryland and 16 other states have five or more high-risk sites. North Carolina, which does not require impermeable liners on coal ash landfills and wet ponds, has 17, the most in the nation.

The EPA study warned that peak exposures to leaching pollutants from ash disposal sites occur from 78 to 105 years after they open.

Pennsylvania has required liners under new ash disposal sites since 1992, but allowed those operating before that to continue accepting ash.

Because of those long-term health risks, Lisa Evans, an attorney with Earthjustice, a nonprofit public interest law firm based in Washington, D.C., called on the EPA to phase out and clean out existing coal ash impoundments within five years.

Each year the nation's 450 coal-fired power plants dispose of about 100 million tons of toxic fly ash, bottom ash and scrubber sludge in landfills and wet ponds.

Pennsylvania coal-fired power plants produce almost 10 million tons, more than every state but Kentucky, Texas and Indiana, but about 40 percent of that total is used to produce wallboard, cinder blocks and other cement products.


Don Hopey can be reached at dhopey@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1983.


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