The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Local News

February 4, 2011

Report: Carcinogen tied to coal ash pollution

— A new report from environmental and social justice groups reports that hexavalent chromium, a chemical linked to cancer, is regularly leached from coal ash sites.

Hexavalent chromium is a known human carcinogen and can be highly toxic even in small doses. According to the report, the Environmental Protection Agency found that coal ash leaches chromium in great excess of EPA thresholds, and the chromium that does leach from coal ash is nearly 100 percent hexavalent chromium.

“Communities near coal ash sites must add hexavalent chromium to the list of toxic chemicals that threaten their health and families,” said Lisa Evans, senior administrative counsel at Earthjustice and primary author of the report. “It is now abundantly clear that the EPA must control coal ash disposal to prevent the poisoning of our drinking water with hexavalent chromium.”

The “aggressive leaching” of chromium hexate has been known by the Department of Energy for years, the authors of the report wrote.

“These findings, buried in government reports, need to see the light of day,” they wrote. “Hundreds — maybe thousands — of leaking and unlined coal ash dumps are situated near water supplies. EPA and DOE have demonstrated that the contaminated leachate (the liquid leaking from coal ash landfills and ponds) is often rich in this cancer-causing chemical.”

The report, “EPA’s Blind Spot: Hexavalent Chromium in Coal Ash,” is a collaboration of the law firm Earthjustice, Physicians for Social Responsibility and the Environmental Integrity Project.

Coal ash is a byproduct of coal combustion, created when coal is burned in power plants to produce energy. According to an article in Scientific American that cites Oak Ridge National Laboratory researcher Dana Christensen, “the fly ash emitted by a power plant — a byproduct from burning coal for electricity — carries into the surrounding environment 100 times more radiation than a nuclear power plant producing the same amount of energy.”

In testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works Wednesday, EPA Administration Lisa Jackson awknowledged the cancer-inducing effects of hexavalent chromium and told Congress the EPA would be working to reduce chromium exposure.

“Recent animal testing data have demonstrated carcinogenicity associated with ingesting chromium-6 in drinking water,” Jackson said. “That discovery, along with a recent report by the Environmental Working Group that found elevated levels of chromium-6 in more than 30 public water systems, has heightened public concern about the presence of chromium-6 in drinking water.”

In addition to chromium, coal ash also may contain arsenic, lead, cadmium, mercury, selenium and other dangerous chemicals.

Hexavalent chromium was made famous by the environmental activist Erin Brockovich, a woman who sued Pacific Gas and Electric for alleged contamination of drinking water with the chemical. The story of the woman who, without a law degree, challenged the company was made into a movie featuring actress Julia Roberts as Brockovich.

The case made headlines in the early ’90s, and earlier this month, hexavalent chromium was back at center stage. A study of tap water in 35 U.S. cities showed that 31 contained chromium, prompting the EPA to issue new guidelines recommending public water utilities test for hexavalent chromium.

According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, the chemical causes an increase in stomach tumors observed in humans and animals exposed to the water.

According to the report, coal ash leachate is not federally regulated and is often dumped in unlined ponds and pits used as construction fill. The largest industrial source of chromium comes from coal-burning power plants.

The report calls for tighter regulation of coal ash in regard to chromium pollution.

Barbara Gottlieb, deputy director for environment and health at Physicians for Social Responsibility, was one of several authors who contributed to the report.

“The cancer risk from hexavalent chromium is one more serious threat to health from coal ash,” Gottlieb said. “To protect the public from carcinogens and other dangerous substances, the EPA needs to regulate coal ash as a hazardous waste.”

According to the report, the EPA ignored the possible dangers of ingesting hexavalent chromium in their determination of coal ash regulation.

“Although the cancer risk associated with (hexavalent chromium) in groundwater is substantial, EPA completely ignored this risk in its proposed coal ash rulemaking,” the authors wrote.

The study also found that, as power plants reduce their emission of nitrogen oxide into the air, the water becomes dirtier as a result of increased hexavalent chromium in “flue gas desulfurization sludge.” If the EPA does not act to curb increased volume of the sludge, drinking water will be at a much greater threat as the EPA fights air pollution, the report states.

— E-mail: tkuykendall@register-herald.com

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