The December 2008 Tennessee coal ash spill. Photo Credit: Lyndsay Moseley, Sierra Club
The words "hexavalent chromium" may not be ones you come across everyday, but they have made the news before. The deadly toxin first made headlines after Erin Brockovich sued Pacific Gas & Electric because of poisoned drinking water from hexavalent chromium. Now, new information from a joint report indicates that this chemical leaks readily from leaking coal ash dump sites maintained for coal-fired power plants.
The joint report (PDF) comes from public interest law firm Earthjustice, Physicians for Social Responsibility, Environmental Integrity Project and the Sierra Club.Coal ash is the by-product of burning coal for power, and there are hundreds of coal ash wet and dry storage sites around the U.S. Hexavalent chromium is a highly toxic carcinogen when inhaled, and recent studies from the National Toxicology Program indicate that when leaked into drinking water, it can also cause cancer.
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Lisa Jackson even mentioned this report and the dangers of hexavalent chromium when testifying before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on Wednesday.
Beyond hexavalent chromium, coal ash contains arsenic, lead, cadmium, mercury, selenium and many other chemicals that can cause cancer and damage the nervous system and organs, especially in children.
But there are no federal safeguards to protect the public and the environment from toxic coal ash. As such, we are part of a coalition pushing for federally-enforceable safeguards from coal ash.
Among the findings from the new report:
- The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found that the type of chromium that leaches from coal ash sites is nearly always of the hexavalent variety, which is the most toxic form of chromium.
- The threat of hexavalent chromium contamination in drinking water is present at hundreds of unlined coal ash sites across the country.
- At least 28 coal ash sites in 17 states have already released chromium to groundwater at levels exceeding by thousands of times a proposed drinking water goal for hexavalent chromium.
- Power plants dump more than 10 million pounds of chromium and chromium compounds into mostly unlined or inadequately lined coal ash landfills, ponds and fill sites each year. The electric power industry is the largest single source of chromium and chromium compounds released to the environment.
- The U.S. Department of Energy and electric utility industry have known for years about the aggressive leaking of hexavalent chromium from coal ash.
- Hexavalent chromium contamination from coal ash is clearly a grave threat. Yet EPA, which is currently in the process of deciding whether or not to regulate coal ash as a hazardous waste, has completely ignored the cancer risk from chromium in groundwater.
It's time for EPA to act. The Obama Administration should keep its promise to respect science and protect the public's health, by putting strong federal standards in place to keep this contamination from spreading even further.