When it comes to clean water, there's no such thing as a safe short cut:
In March, the N.C. Division of Water Quality (DWQ) filed a lawsuit over coal ash pollution seeping from ponds at a power plant in Asheville, N.C. owned by Duke Energy's Progress subsidiary. This week, DWQ amended that suit to address similar issues at Duke Energy's Riverbend plant on Mountain Island Lake, which provides drinking water for over 750,000 people in the Charlotte area.
While it might be a truism to say, "We shouldn't be worrying about coal waste because we shouldn't be burning coal anymore", the fact is, we are, and will continue to do so to some degree for many years to come. That being said, coal proponents love to talk about how cheap it is to burn coal. But you know what? Costs are accrued during the whole cycle, and that includes disposal of the toxic wastes. Skimping on that not only creates a false cost formula, it can change the chemical formula of our water, too:
A DWQ document filed as part of the legal action shows numerous exceedances since 2010 of allowable limits of iron and manganese in groundwater monitoring wells near the Riverbend plant, with some levels as high as 13 times the standard. Independent testing by the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation found that the Riverbend coal ash ponds are discharging cancer-causing arsenic into Mountain Island Lake at twice the standard, and iron at 27, cobalt at 52, and manganese at 128 times the standard. Other contaminants seeping into the lake from the Riverbend ash ponds include boron, barium, strontium, and zinc.
Contaminants found in monitoring wells near Duke's Asheville plant include boron, chloride, chromium, nitrates, selenium, sulfates, thallium, and total dissolved solids. Manganese levels in one monitoring well there registered at over 140 times the standard.
I'm not sure if there is another naturally-occurring substance that contains as many toxins and heavy metals as coal does, but I think it's safe to say there isn't another one that we so casually introduce into our environment in such a huge volume.