Coal Ash Wednesday: Chatham County ash pit leaking dangerous toxins

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Charah needs to answer some questions like yesterday:

State regulators have asked the operator of a Chatham County landfill where coal ash is being stored to come up with a plan to address high levels of toxic elements found in nearby water. The Brickhaven site near Moncure is a former clay mine that the state Department of Environmental Quality approved four years ago to be used as a lined landfill for coal ash being moved from unlined pits at Duke Energy power plants.

DEQ's Division of Waste Management sent a letter to Brickhaven operator Charah Inc. on Friday, noting that levels of barium, chloride, chromium, cobalt and vanadium were found at levels higher than state standards in various groundwater monitoring wells over time. In addition, high levels of arsenic, cobalt, copper, lead and zinc were found in nearby surface water.

In theory, the clay located at this particular site should have provided a good impermeable layer to block seepage. But generally speaking, when a mine is "played out," there's not enough (of whatever it is) left over to continue operating. Whatever the case, this just drives home the message that bottom liners are the only way to ensure leachate doesn't get into the groundwater. But thanks to decades of criminal negligence by coal plant operators, only 5% of the nation's ash pits have those liners:

An examination of monitoring data available for the first time concludes that 91 percent of U.S. coal-fired power plants with monitoring data are contaminating groundwater with unsafe levels of toxic pollutants. The study by the Environmental Integrity Project, with assistance from Earthjustice, used industry data that became available to the public for the first time in 2018 because of requirements in federal coal ash regulations issued in 2015.

The report found that the groundwater near 242 of the 265 power plants with monitoring data contained unsafe levels of one or more of the pollutants in coal ash, including arsenic, a known carcinogen, and lithium, which is associated with neurological damage, among other pollutants.

The data came from over 4,600 groundwater monitoring wells located around the ash dumps of 265 coal-fired power plants, which is roughly three quarters of the coal power plants across the U.S. The rest of the plants did not have to comply with the federal Coal Ash Rule’s groundwater monitoring requirements last year, either because they closed their ash dumps before the rule went into effect in 2015, or because they were eligible for an extension.

EIP’s analysis of the data found that a majority of the 265 coal plants have unsafe levels of at least four toxic constituents of coal ash in the underlying groundwater. Fifty-two percent had unsafe levels of arsenic, which can impair the brains of developing children and is known to cause cancer. Sixty percent of the plants have unsafe levels of lithium, a chemical associated with multiple health risks, including neurological damage.

Many of the coal ash waste ponds are poorly and unsafely designed, with less than 5 percent having waterproof liners to prevent contaminants from leaking into the groundwater, and 59 percent built beneath the water table or within five feet of it.

This project mis-managed by Charah never should have been approved. To go to the trouble and cost of relocating coal ash, only to move it to another unlined pit, is just plain stupid.

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