A former coal-fired power plant in western Pennsylvania has one of the most contaminated coal ash deposits in the country.
That’s according to the new Poisonous Coverup report released by the Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice. The environmental groups argue that across America, “almost all coal-fired power plant owners are ignoring important requirements and employing common tricks to avoid mandatory cleaning” of coal ash, a by-product of burning coal that contains various contaminants.
“The result is widespread groundwater contamination that threatens our drinking water supply and aquatic life,” the report said, and documents show problems at more than 265 sites across the country.
Coal ash disposal was not specifically regulated at the federal level until 2015, when the Coal Ash Rule added regulations to prevent groundwater pollution, stop leaks from coal ash ponds, and restore groundwater quality. Pennsylvania has its own regulations regarding coal ash.
In Pennsylvania, a coal ash site in New Castle, Lawrence County was ranked as the sixth most polluted site.
Although no coal has been burned there since 2016, when the power plant converted to natural gas, GenOn’s site has two coal ash units that implemented the Coal Ash Rule – North Bottom Ash Pond and an Ash Landfill.
A third entity, a decades-old ash pond under a landfill, is the source of the dispute; It is believed to be the source of the contamination, but GenOn “believes it is not subject to the Coal Ash Rule,” the report said, since the ash pond was closed before the federal regulation went into effect.
Monitoring where the regulation applies was also arbitrary.
“Although the North Bottom Ash Pond has been closed by removal, the Coal Ash Rule requires continued groundwater monitoring until groundwater no longer exceeds groundwater protection standards,” the report said. “Nevertheless, GenOn appears to have stopped monitoring around this facility in 2019, even though arsenic concentrations in all three gravity wells remained many times higher than the standard groundwater protection standard.”
The landfill is 50 acres and contains “3 million tons of ash” accumulated over 80 years. The EIP and Earthjustice argue that the Coal Ash Rule should be applied to the landfill to restore groundwater quality.
“This approach is not only mandated by law, but also common sense – there is no way to restore groundwater at the site without removing all of the coal ash known to be buried there,” the report states.
A previous EIP report said coal ash was a problem across Pennsylvania, primarily in the western and central regions. The majority of identified sites had arsenic levels above federal norms, and the vast majority had some type of “unsafe contaminant levels.”
Other coal ash locations mentioned were:
- Brunner Island Steam Electric Station (York County).
- Plant Bruce Mansfield (Beaver County).
- Conemaugh Power Plant (Indiana County).
- Homer City Power Plant (Indiana County).
- Montour Electric Steam Station (Montour County).
- Cheswick Power Station (Allegheny County).
- Keystone Power Plant (Armstrong County).
Coal ash pollution problems on Brunner Island resulted in a $1 million fine in 2019. A 2021 settlement for the Montour Steam Electric Station closed its coal ash site and required $1.2 million for conservation efforts. And in 2022, West Penn Power paid a $610,000 penalty to the EPA for water discharge violations at its coal ash landfills in Washington and Allegheny counties.
EIA and Earthjustice called for more federal action to prevent future pollution — and additional costs for taxpayers to clean up.
“Although some pollutants from coal ash have entered the local environment, there is still a huge amount of potential pollution in coal ash ponds and landfills,” the report said. “If the coal ash is left in place without corrective action, these pollutants will continue to seep into groundwater for generations to come.”