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.
Effects of coal ash contamination go beyond health risks
When environmental watchdogs in Iowa point out the dangers associated with coal ash disposal, the focus of their fear is usually the health risks associated with contaminated groundwater.
Because Iowa allows certain sites to act as coal ash disposal sites without installing protective liners and without groundwater monitoring wells, the worry is that heavy metals in the ash will leach out and poison groundwater streams and aquifers. A U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report released earlier this year found cancer risks to be much higher for those living near unlined coal ash disposal sites than typically accepted.
But as the federal government weighs stricter rules governing the disposal of coal ash, and as awareness of the potential dangers in Iowa continues to increase, it is important to note that while health risks are a major concern, there are many others that must be considered.
Four sites in Iowa received a waiver from the state Department of Natural Resources to accept coal ash without following strict landfill standards. It was recently announced that one of the sites, a quarry in Waterloo, would begin a strict groundwater monitoring program at the behest of the state’s three largest public universities, which are among the larges ash producers in Iowa.
But the other three sites continue to operate outside of state regulation – no mandatory monitoring, no protective liner and no financial assurance to ensure cleanup if there is a problem.
Lucie Laurian is an associate professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Iowa who has spent years studying the effects of toxic sites on local populations. She says if groundwater is contaminated, the cost of cleanup will skyrocket into the tens of millions of dollars and could take 10 to 20 years to complete.
Initially, this cost would be the responsibility of the owners of the sites, which in Iowa includes four private businesses.
“In a lot of places, when companies start to see millions of dollars of cleanup costs on the horizon, the company will go bankrupt,” she said.
If that happens, the cost of cleanup falls on either the state or federal government, depending on whether the site is declared Superfund, the common name for the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 which federal law designed to clean up abandoned hazardous waste sites.
“If they become Superfund, the EPA is responsible for clean up,” Laurian said. “There is money already set aside for expenses. But they will go after the responsible parties. So EPA would make some arrangement with the current owners to make them pay.”
For a site to be declared Superfund it has to high enough to qualify. If it does not, the burden will be shifted to the state.
“If the company closes, the state will get stuck with the tab,” Laurian said.
A study released earlier this year by the Institute for Policy Integrity (IPI), a non-partisan think tank based in New York City, found the benefits of upgrading disposal sites would exceed the costs of tougher regulations by almost 10 to 1. The research focused mostly on coal ash ponds like the one that failed in Kingston, Tenn., in December. The costs for quarries to upgrade would be much lower than the costs for ponds, according Scott Holladay, an economist who researched the issue for IPI.
“It’s not just the cost of cleanup if there is contamination,” Holladay said at the time. “It is also the cost of health risks, like cancer. The cost of treating bladder cancer, for example, is something we are going to have to pay if we don’t line these facilities and groundwater is poisoned.”
Coal ash contains much greater concentrations of elements such as mercury, zinc, lead, arsenic and selenium than the coal itself. Exposure to these toxins could not only lead to cancer, but also birth defects and reproductive problems.
For those who have had their health costs covered by the company responsible for the site it has usually come after many years of litigation, Laurian said.
Many residents who live near toxic sites feel a sense of betrayal, a feeling that their government has forsaken them and the company responsible has lied to them, she said. That was the feeling of residents of Colstrip, Montana, who told a reporter from the Center for Public Integrity in February that they remember the day when the local power company promised them they would never have problems with coal ash disposal.
It was later discovered the residents drank ash-laced water for years, and there questions are still unanswered as to the potential health consequences associated with drinking that water.
In addition to the health risks, though, Laurian points to a stigma that effects these communities for many, many years.
“For homes near the site, property values plummet,” she said. “It’s very hard to sell properties if there is any sign of extensive pollution. But that all depends on how close to the sites people live. Banks might be resistant to loan people funds to buy property that is near the site.”
Problem for decades
Groundwater monitoring and liners are not the only regulations these types of sites avoid. The Department of Natural Resources does not require soil or hydrogeologic investigation, so even basic information about the site, such as direction of groundwater flow, is not known. DNR officials even admit contamination could already be taking place.
Without more specific site information, Laurian said it is hard to say just how dangerous these sites are. Peter Taglia, a hydrogeologist with environmental watchdog Clean Wisconsin who worked for five years as a consultant for utilities, looked at what little information is available about the site in Waterloo and concluded the risk of contamination is low, but not zero.
“The problem is it may take time for heavy metals to leach off the site,” Laurian said. “That depends on the geology of the site. But they may test the water tomorrow and find nothing, but then it sits there for 15 years. Then there is contamination. The particles take a while to go into the soil. It could be years and years before the groundwater is contaminated.”
The EPA is scheduled to reveal its draft rules by the end of the year, and state officials, among them Gov. Chet Culver, have said Iowa will examine the new regulations and see if state action is needed. The DNR has already said it would like to mandate liners, site restrictions and groundwater monitoring, among other things.
“I think the best argument is that if nearby states mandate these sites be monitored and lined and it is financially feasible for these companies to do it and still make money, why can’t it be done in Iowa?” Laurian said.