MAC: Mines and Communities

USA: Coal Ash radioactivity concealed by Duke Energy

Published by MAC on 2018-03-05
Source: Waterkeeper Alliance, The Republic

...and the contamination doesn't stop there

The allegedly "criminal" activities of Duke Energy notwithstanding, this US power utility is now accused of deliberately burying evidence of unacceptably high levels of coal ash radioactivity amid 20,000 pages of laboratory results.

Nor does the damage stop there: Duke is also guilty of contaminating ground water with "arsenic, lead, and a host of other toxic pollutants".

But Duke isn't the only coal ash culprit, as The Republic noted, adding:

"The Environmental Protection Agency required... plant owners to install test wells to monitor groundwater pollution as a first step toward cleaning up the sites."

However, last week: "The future of that effort was cast into uncertainty [as] the Trump administration announced it intends to roll back aspects of the program to reduce the industry’s compliance costs by up to $100 million annually".


Groundwater Monitoring Reveals Widespread Radioactivity at Duke Energy Coal Plants​

Waterkeeper Alliance

2 March 2018

Data shows high levels of radioactivity at 11 of 18 plants

Today is the deadline for coal-fired power plants to post the results of their groundwater monitoring under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s 2015 rule regulating the storage and disposal of coal ash. EPA required such monitoring to determine the extent to which coal ash impoundments and landfills were contaminating groundwater. The results confirm the widespread groundwater contamination caused by coal ash around the country. In particular, Duke Energy’s results reveal startlingly high levels of radioactivity at 11 out of 18 plants.

Contrary to industry practices, Duke Energy did not summarize its groundwater monitoring results in a table, instead burying results in more than 20,000 pages of lab results. Earthjustice Senior Attorney Lisa Evans took a closer look at the data, and found what Duke Energy might have been trying to hide: high levels of radioactivity at a majority of its plants.

“The way Duke Energy presented its data showed a clear intent to obscure the findings,” said Lisa Evans. “Despite Duke’s efforts, we found that the data reveal levels of radium in groundwater that far exceed EPA’s drinking water standards and that could clearly harm people who use this water for drinking.”

This level of contamination is even more concerning considering that EPA’s standard for radioactivity in drinking water, written in 1976, is considered outdated and not as protective as needed. California has released public health goals for radioactive elements in drinking water that are about a hundred times more stringent than EPA’s standard. The Environmental Working Group recently released a study finding that the drinking water of more than 170 million Americans is radioactive enough to increase the risk of cancer.

Levels of radioactivity from radium at the Marshall coal-fired power plant on Lake Norman were 2.5 times the federal drinking water standard. Thallium levels at Marshall also exceeded federal standards and were 18 times higher than the North Carolina groundwater standard. Ash ponds at Marshall are still leaking into surface water and groundwater upstream of drinking water intakes for more than 1 million people in the Charlotte region. Together, these alarming results mean that Marshall ash facilities are much more polluted than previously disclosed.

Sam Perkins, the Catawba Riverkeeper, noted, “This is yet another extremely concerning case of new information about Duke discharging dangerous pollutants from its property. Given Duke’s criminal history and ongoing probation, I am alarmed that Duke has failed to learn from its past mistakes. Duke must take ownership of its problems and not stop hiding this information from their neighbors and the millions of people who depend on the Catawba River for drinking water".

The highest levels of radioactivity were found at Duke Energy’s Asheville Power Plant, with levels of radium in groundwater 38 times what EPA considers safe for drinking water. “These results confirm that we were right to force Duke Energy to commit to removing the coal ash from the leaking ash ponds at their Asheville site,” said Hartwell Carson, the French Broad Riverkeeper. “We need to ensure that Duke’s clean up of the site stops the release of dangerous pollutants to our groundwater.”

In addition to the alarming levels of radioactivity from radium, the results demonstrate that Duke Energy is contaminating groundwater with arsenic, lead, and a host of other toxic pollutants. “Despite the clear evidence that coal-fired power plants such as those owned by Duke Energy are endangering lives with their pollution, Scott Pruitt’s EPA continues its misguided effort to eliminate even the bare minimum standards,” said Larissa Liebmann, Staff Attorney at Waterkeeper Alliance. “Just last night, EPA released revisions showing its intent to cripple the very rule that requires this sampling and the release of these data.”

United as one powerful force, Waterkeeper Alliance fights for every community's right to drinkable, fishable, swimmable water. For more information please visit

US utilities find water pollution at coal ash dumps


The Republic

2 March 2018

BILLINGS, Mont. — Major utilities have found evidence of groundwater contamination at coal-burning power plants across the U.S. where landfills and man-made ponds have been used for decades as dumping grounds for coal ash, according to data released by plant owners under a Friday deadline.

Heightened levels of pollutants — including arsenic and radium in some cases — were documented at plants in numerous states, from Virginia to Alaska.

The Environmental Protection Agency required the plant owners to install test wells to monitor groundwater pollution as a first step toward cleaning up the sites.

The future of that effort was cast into uncertainty Thursday when the Trump administration announced it intends to roll back aspects of the program to reduce the industry’s compliance costs by up to $100 million annually.

“There’s no dispute that the underlying groundwater is being contaminated. We see that clearly,” said Duke University professor Avner Vengosh, who researches the effects of coal ash and has reviewed some of the new data. “The real question is whether it’s migrating toward people or wells next to (coal plants).”

Vengosh added that the discovery at some sites of radium at levels far exceeding drinking water standards — which can increase the risk of cancer — were of particular concern. It appears to mark the first time coal ash has been associated with radioactivity in groundwater, he said.

Duke Energy spokeswoman Erin Culbert noted that government-sponsored research has shown most coal ash does not have radioactive elements. She said the elevated radium levels reported at some Duke plants reflected raw data that had not been analyzed to determine if the contamination was naturally occurring or came from another source.

The Associated Press conducted an initial review of the reports, which were still being filed Friday, and spoke with power company executives across the country, who warned against misinterpreting the pollution data.

Generally, they said further studies were needed to confirm the ash storage sites as the source of the contamination and whether public drinking water supplies were threatened.

U.S. coal plants produce about 100 million tons annually of ash and other waste, much of which ends up in unlined disposal ponds prone to leak. Some have been in use for decades.

Among large U.S. utilities, Duke Energy reported preliminary findings of contamination of groundwater at 48 ash basins and landfills. American Electric Power, or AEP, reported potential groundwater impacts at 24 ash disposal sites. Dominion Energy, the Tennessee Valley Authority, Xcel Energy and others also reported evidence of contamination.

Mark McCullough, executive vice president at AEP, said the company needed more data to decide which sites will need to close.

“These (monitoring) wells that are close to the sites are telling us something, and we are committed to doing the hard work and to understand where the real source is and what it is,” McCullough said.

Pam Faggert, the chief environmental officer for Richmond, Virginia-based Dominion, said the company also conducts surface water tests near its facilities and was confident that the groundwater impacts were not having an effect on public drinking water or public safety offsite.

Coal ash storage and disposal went largely unregulated until a 2008 spill at a Tennessee Valley Authority power plant in Kingston, Tennessee. A containment dike burst and flooding covered more than 300 acres (121 million hectares), dumped waste into two nearby rivers, destroyed homes and brought national attention to the issue.

In 2014, an estimated 39,000 tons of coal ash spewed into the Dan River after a drainage pipe running below a waste dump collapsed at a Duke Energy plant in Eden, North Carolina. The toxic sludge turned the river gray for more than 70 miles (112 kilometers).

Apart from spills, other ash problems have been documented across the country.

On Friday, Alabama regulators proposed $1.5 million in fines for coal ash pollution from six power plants in violation of clean water laws. Five of the plants are owned by Alabama Power, a subsidiary of Southern Company.

In Montana, an estimated 200 million gallons (757 million liters) of contaminated water a year have been leaking into the groundwater from ash ponds in the city of Colstrip, leaving the water undrinkable. And in Virginia, Dominion has offered to hook some neighbors of the Possum Point Power Station up to municipal water after groundwater testing found elevated levels of some contaminants.

Attorney Lisa Evans with the environmental law firm Earthjustice said the pollution reports underscore the need for strong rules on cleaning ash disposal sites, even as the Trump administration appears to be heading in the opposite direction.

“This data shows what communities have been concerned about: Coal ash landfills and impoundments are leaking,” Evans said, adding that Thursday’s proposal could lead to the “evisceration” of current regulations.

Another environmental attorney, Frank Holleman with the Southern Environmental Law Center, pushed back against the utilities’ argument that the data so far has been largely indicative of on-site contamination, not a broader public health threat. He said groundwater doesn’t stay in one place — it moves and flows.

Remediation work at some coal ash disposal areas already is underway.

AEP has closed six ash storage sites to date, the company said. Duke Energy has started excavation work at 11 sites and had spent $1.4 billion on such efforts through last December, the company disclosed last week. It plans to spend another $2.5 billion on ash site closures over the next five years.


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