Wednesday was a difficult day for The American Independent News Network, which is the larger entity that operates The Iowa Independent. Our chief executive and founder announced two of our sister sites would close and their content would be moved to The American Independent.
EPA failed to disclose coal ash-related health risks
People who live near sites used to store ash or sludge from coal-fired power plants have a one in 50 chance of developing cancer, according to a just released government report kept from the public for seven years by the Bush Administration.
The data, compiled by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2002 and released Thursday by the watchdog groups Earth Justice and the Environmental Integrity Project, suggests that environmental contamination from the storage sites could last for a century or longer.
The Iowa Independent reported in March that there are four disposal sites across Iowa where coal ash is being stored in unmonitored and unlined containment facilities, raising concerns that dangerous materials in the ash could poison groundwater supplies, damage ecosystems and jeopardize human health.
The largely unregulated sites include three abandoned quarries in Cedar Rapids, Goose Lake and Waterloo and one mine in Buffalo. Each received a waiver from the Department of Natural Resources allowing them to accept coal ash as fill in the sites’ reclamation process.
Coal ash, also known as fly ash, is the waste produced by burning coal. The nation’s power plants produce enough ash to fill 1 million railroad cars a year, according to a 2006 report by the National Research Council. Coal-burning power plants in Iowa produce 20,000 to 30,000 tons of coal ash every year. The Hawkeye State also imports coal ash from Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana.
The ash contains high levels of arsenic, lead, mercury and boron, each of which has been known to cause cancer, neurological and development problems, and other illnesses. Yet for three decades, rules governing coal ash have been left up to the states, creating a patchwork of differing regulations with questionable effectiveness.
Environmental groups want the state to more strictly regulate these types of sites by requiring state-of-the-art liners and multiple monitors to safeguard human health and the environment.
The state DNR has been working for more than a year on draft rules to better regulate these disposal sites. But opposition from site owners and coal-burning businesses, along with uncertainty about what regulations the federal government may eventually impose, have caused the effort to stall. The Obama administration’s EPA administrator, Lisa Jackson, said her agency will begin drafting new regulations for coal ash, likely to be released by the end of 2009. But environmentalists fear the new regulations won’t address the problem of unlined disposal sites.
In an interview with the Iowa Independent in March, Chad Stobbe, the DNR’s lead staffer on coal ash issues, said because there are currently no monitoring wells at these disposal sites to ensure groundwater is not being contaminated, he cannot say definitively that some sort of contamination isn’t taking place.
Coal ash also poses a serious danger to aquatic wildlife and ecosystems, the report said. One contaminant – boron – can be expected to leach into the environment at levels 2,000 times the threshold generally considered safe for aquatic life.
A 2007 study of coal-ash disposal rules in Iowa by Plains Justice, a Cedar Rapids-based public interest environmental law center, found that including the four “benificial use” sites and sanitary landfills, Iowa has a total of 22 coal ash disposal sites around the state. There are also several “temporary impoundments” that the group has not tracked.
Kelly Fuller, Plains Justices’ communications director, said an important thing to remember is that even if formerly unlined sites have now been lined, unless extensive cleanups took place “there could still be contamination problems.”