Virginia residents who get their drinking water from the New River are at a health risk due to the unlined coal ash dump in the nearby town of Narrows. (Photo: Tom Yulsman)
Charleston, West Virginia - The Bush administration kept secret for nearly five years data that showed increased cancer risks from drinking water polluted by coal-ash impoundments, according to a new report issued Thursday.
Under President Bush, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials never made public an October 2002 study that outlined increased risks of as high as 1 in 50 additional cancer cases.
EPA later published some of the data in an August 2007 study. But even then, the agency report left out some key information about additional dangers to aquatic ecosystems and wildlife from toxic metals leaching out of unlined or inadequately lined coal-ash dumps.
The Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice on Thursday issued a report that tries to explain in simple language the findings in both EPA documents, which examined more than 200 coal-ash landfills and surface impoundments.
"We now have the full picture about coal dump sites across America and it is not pretty," said Eric Schaeffer, director of the Environmental Integrity Project.
Seven West Virginia coal-ash dumps were among those examined in the EPA studies. They were the three sites associated with American Electric Power's John Amos Power Plant in Putnam County, one at AEP's Mitchell Plant in Marshall County, one at Dominion's Mount Storm Plant in Grant County, one at Monongahela Power's Harrison Power Plant in Harrison County, and one at Mon Power's Fort Martin Plant in Monongalia County.
A spokesman for one of the companies that operates the West Virginia facilities, Pat Hemlepp of AEP, said his company is reviewing the new report before commenting in detail.
The EPA risk study did not examine the specific risks of any of those facilities, instead examining a broader question of how drinking water contaminated by a coal-ash dump could affect human health.
Among the findings:
â€¢ The problem may be twice as big as the data indicate: The number of unlined and clay-lined ash ponds and landfills currently in operation in the United States is likely to be more than double the number of units represented in the EPA survey data. Industry has reported at lest 427 waste ponds, more than 40 percent more than EPA had expected.
â€¢ Health threats from coal ash could linger for 100 years: EPA warns that peak pollution from ash ponds can occur long after the waste is placed and is likely to result in peak exposures 78 to 105 years after the ponds first begin operation.
â€¢ Higher cancer risks for up to 1 in 50 nearby residents: The EPA estimates that up to 1 in 50 nearby residents could get cancer from exposure to arsenic leaking into drinking water wells from unlined waste ponds that mix ash and coal refuse.
â€¢ Higher noncancer risks from lead and other sources: EPA projects that unlined ash ponds can increase the risk of other noncancer health effects, such as damage to the liver and kidneys, or in the case of lead, to the central nervous system.
â€¢ What environmentalists described as "eye-popping" risks to aquatic ecosystems - EPA data predicted boron concentrations up to 2,000 times the safe level, and selenium levels 10 times higher than considered safe to aquatic life.
"Given what the agency already knows, coal ash ponds must be phased out - and cleaned out - within five years, to keep their toxic cargo from building up and jeopardizing the health of nearby residents, poisoning wildlife, and contaminating rivers and streams," said Lisa Evans, an attorney with Earthjustice who has followed coal-ash issues for years.
Disposal of the more than 100 million tons a year of various wastes - fly ash, bottom ash and scrubber sludge - from the nation's coal-fired power plants has drawn much scrutiny since an ash impoundment failed in Eastern Tennessee in December, sending wet, toxic ash pouring into homes, fields and streams.
EPA administrator Lisa Jackson has promised to issue new regulations to govern the handling of these wastes, and House Natural Resources Chairman Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., proposed legislation to mandate safety regulations of dam structures that hold ash impoundments.