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Groups Petition EPA to Prohibit Dumping of Coal Ash in Water
“Dumping power plant waste into water has severely contaminated groundwater and surface water in Northwestern New Mexico. The practice of mixing industrial waste with our extremely limited water resources is not only dangerous, it’s ludicrous,” said John Horning, Executive Director of WildEarth Guardians.
While air pollution from coal-burning utilities is regulated under the Clean Air Act, the roughly 130 million tons of solid waste generated annually by power plants receive little, if any, oversight by the federal government and scant attention by state governments. Yet power plant waste contains 17 heavy metals, such as arsenic, lead and chromium, and other harmful constituents that can contaminate ground and surface water if not properly contained. Once in water, these toxins can contaminate drinking water supplies and kill fish, amphibians, birds and mammals. There are over 70 documented sites in the U.S. where power plant waste has contaminated groundwater and surface water. These sites represent only a small percentage of the total damage because most power plant waste dumps are not monitored.
New Mexicans have reason to be concerned. In Farmington, New Mexico, power plant waste has caused severe water pollution downstream of the San Juan Generating Station and adjacent BHP coal mine. The coal mine has been filled with approximately 30 million tons of coal combustion waste from the 1800 MW coal-burning plant. Water generated by the San Juan Generating Station is percolating through the ash, causing the ground water and the water in the Shumway Arroyo to contain sulfates in levels toxic to wildlife and domestic animals. Tests show levels of sulfates at 12,000 parts per billion. This is 48 times the EPA standard for drinking water, making the water unusable for any purpose besides fire suppression.
Rancher R. G. Hunt, who lives just downstream from the mine and power plant, is impacted most severely by the groundwater and surface water pollution in the Shumway.
“Coal combustion waste is one of the largest industrial waste streams in America and coal plants think my community is their dumping ground,” said Mr. Hunt. Mr. Hunt lost 1400 head of sheep when his surface water became contaminated with sulfates from the waste. “We’ve told the company, we’ve told the state, we’ve told EPA. The pollution keeps getting worse from the ash in the mine, but no one wants to recognize that or do anything about it,” adds Hunt.
“Lax regulations and enforcement have allowed waste from the power plant and associated mine to destroy the fresh water stream that was used by the Hunt family for over 100 years,” states hydrogeologist Paul Davis of Envirologic, Inc., of Albuquerque. Davis documented the contamination of Mr. Hunt’s water supply and supplied this information to EPA. After six months of waiting for a response, Mr. Hunt received a letter in late December. EPA’s response to Mr. Hunt wholly ignored the data submitted by Davis.
A federal prohibition on dumping of power plant wastes in water would prevent the damage occurring in Farmington. But EPA is moving slowly, if at all, on regulations promised in 2000 governing power plant waste. Four years ago, the Agency made a commitment to write and issue federal regulations controlling dumping in surface impoundments, landfills and minefills. Instead EPA is considering the concept, proposed by utilities, of “voluntary standards” on the dumping of the waste at landfills and surface impoundments. EPA officials have also considered issuing language offering “guidance,” rather than regulations, to state regulators on the dumping of power plant waste in mines. Environmentalists maintain that both actions are unacceptable.
The petition is submitted pursuant to the federal solid and hazardous waste law known as the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. According to federal law, EPA Administrator Leavitt is required by law to respond to the rulemaking petition within a reasonable timeframe. EPA has acknowledged that disposal into water, whether in a waste pond or a mine, is unsafe. Groups across the country are asking that EPA ban this most dangerous disposal practice.