EPA acknowledges fly ash contamination to water
Black smoke billowed from a stack at Hatfield’s Ferry Power Plant in May after an out-of-compliance auxiliary oil-burning boiler was used because an unplanned shutdown made it necessary.
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Among 18 new pollution sites confirmed this week by the Environmental Protection Agency to have contaminated ground or surface water with fly ash waste is Hatfield’s Ferry Power Plant in Monongahela Township, Greene County. Its parent company, First Energy, announced the plant is to be closed by Oct. 9.
Ironically, a scrubber system installed at the plant over the last decade to decrease toxic air emissions, has directly contributed to the water issues. The scrubber traps the particles, or fly ash, creating a sludge that must be treated and disposed of properly.
In 2009, the EPA announced it would revise existing wastewater discharge regulations for coal-fired power plants. However, any revisions that may have been made have not been enforced to date.
“Simply put, more delays on federal protections from coal ash mean more pollution and contamination of drinking water,” said Lisa Evans, senior legislative counsel at Earthjustice. “The evidence is overwhelming that coal ash contaminates our waters. Delays by the White House and the EPA to finalize federal regulations are all the more insulting when so many communities are being exposed to toxic chemicals.”
Among the toxic chemicals in fly ash waste are mercury, arsenic, selenium, chromium compounds, lead and vanadium. The Hatfield plant has seen a significant increase in the pounds of waste for each of these substances since the scrubbers were installed. Arsenic went from 18,651 pounds in 2008 to 65,158 pounds in 2011. Barium compounds jumped from 200,722 pounds to 755,776 pounds for the same period. Chromium compounds, which include Hexavalent Chromium, the substance made infamous when it became the subject of the movie, “Erin Brockovich,” are known cancer-causing agents. From 2008 to 2011, the pounds of this substance reported to the EPA by Hatfield in its Toxic Releases Inventory jumped from 33,503 pounds to 111,204 pounds.
First Energy maintains it has operated in full compliance with Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection regulations. New, stricter rules, set for enforcement in 2014, are being blamed by the company in part for the decision to close Hatfield and Mitchell Power Station in Washington County.
Former EPA director of regulatory enforcement Eric Schaeffer is currently the director of the Environmental Integrity Project. During a phone-based news conference, Schaeffer said limits were supposed to be set under the Clean Water Act 30 years ago to get rid of these types of pollutants altogether or limit them as much as possible. Instead, Schaeffer said, there has been a “see no evil approach” among state governments that don’t require testing for these toxicants and a Clean Water Act that simply hasn’t worked.
“Several responsible companies have already shown the way. Several dozen have put in treatment systems that eliminate or take out most of this pollution,” Schaeffer said. “It’s EPA’s job not just to protect the human health but to maintain a level playing field so that companies that spend money to clean up are not held hostage by dirty competitors who decide to skip making those investments in cleaning up their discharges.”
In total, the EPA has identified 38 cases where the threat to ground water or surface water currently exists. They have acknowledged 95 more coal ash disposal sites that have the potential to be added to that list. Last year alone, utilities self-reported having contaminated groundwater or surface waters with coal ash contaminants at 116 coal ash disposal units at 49 coal fired power plants, according to the EIP.
Other states with coal ash sites that have polluted ground or surface water included in the EPA’s confirmation, include West Virginia, New York, Virginia, Indiana, Michigan, North Carolina, South Carolina, Nevada, Montana, Tennessee, Wisconsin and Texas. Additional Pennsylvania plants include Orion Power Holding’s Fern Valley landfill and First Energy’s Bruce Mansfield Power Station in Shippingport, the largest in the state. The site in neighboring West Virginia is the John Amos Power Plant operated by Appalachian Power in Winfield, W.Va.
Schaeffer said there are multiple scenarios being presented as enforcement options by the EPA. If the “more protective options” are enforced, it would cut the toxic load by more than 50 percent at the coal-fired plants, according to Schaeffer.
“I guess it is better late than never,” he said.