It's long been known that coal ash, the residue after coal is burned, contains potentially dangerous chemicals. But the chemicals coal-fired power plants put into the air rightly have received far more attention. Because air pollution disperses over a wide area and affects literally every breathing human or animal within its path, regulations designed to limit it have been promulgated and enforced for decades. Coal-fired power plant operations commonly have flushed coal ash into artificial ponds, where any contaminants the waste contained presumably would be contained.
In 2015, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency established a plan to require utilities to monitor and regulate coal ash disposal, and shortly afterward, Indiana began that process. Earlier this month, the results of the groundwater tests were made public. It was not good news.
According to the Hoosier Environmental Council, the tests revealed dangerous levels of pollutants at 14 sites. Those are located in many areas around the state, though there are none in northeast Indiana.
Dr. Indra Frank, the council's director of environmental health and water policy, explained the problem and what can be done about it in an interview last week.
“Coal has traces of metal in it,” she said. “After you burn off the carbon, those metals are in higher concentration in the ash. And it turns out, when water comes into contact with coal ash, those metals can move into the water and you can wind up with contaminated water.”
The council is still analyzing data from the tests utilities were required to conduct, Frank said, but it is clear that groundwater near some coal-ash disposal sites exceeds drinking-water or public-health standards for several pollutants, including arsenic, radium, boron – which has been associated with low birthweight and birth defects – cobalt, lithium, lead and molybdenum, which can affect various organs, Frank said.
Public drinking-water systems are routinely tested for such chemicals. But people living near coal-ash plants who depend on private wells should take note, Frank said.
“It's up to the owner of the well to decide if and when to test their water,” she said. “I'd recommend anyone living within a mile of coal ash, if they're using well water, to get that well water tested.”
A separate concern is potential pollution of surface water. “We have large collections of coal ash sitting next to our major rivers,” Frank said. “There are a few sitting next to Lake Michigan.”
A few coal-ash ponds were built with liners designed to prevent chemicals from leaching into the groundwater, Frank said, and the tests showed those barriers appear to be working.
But the problem doesn't solve itself. “Coal ash doesn't break down,” Frank said. “It doesn't biodegrade. It's a mineral.”
The environmental council believes the solution is for coal ash to be transferred “to lined landfills, on high ground, away from the floodplains of our rivers,” she said.
That could be tremendously expensive, though, and the costs would be borne by Indiana's electric utilities and their customers. But according to the council, such efforts are under way in Alabama, South Carolina and North Carolina, where a coal-ash spill into a nearby river in 2014 focused public attention on the problem.
Meanwhile, the EPA is revising and possibly weakening the 2015 coal-ash rules; the Indiana Department of Environmental Management is in the process of revising its rules, as well.
So there's new information about a potential environmental problem – but it's far from clear how Indiana will deal with it.