As Enforcement Lags, Toxic Coal Ash Keeps Polluting U.S. Water

An aerial view of the New Castle Generating Station in western Pennsylvania. Yale Environment 360

A few months ago, the New Castle Generating Station, an hour northwest of Pittsburgh, was named one of the most contaminated coal-fired power plant sites in the country. Polluted with arsenic and other toxic chemicals, the facility sits between the village of West Pittsburgh, population 821, and the Beaver River, a tributary of the Ohio River, which serves as a drinking water source for more than 5 million people.

Although the plant, owned by GenOn, largely replaced coal with natural gas in 2016, the site still retains 3 million tons of ash, a mixture of feather-light dust and rock-laden material left over from burning coal. Over the last century, U.S. coal-powered electricity generation has produced at least 5 billion tons of coal ash, enough waste to fill a line of rail cars reaching the moon.

Nearly 60 percent of U.S. annual coal ash production was recycled in 2021, mostly for cement and concrete, according to the American Coal Ash Association. But massive amounts still fill at least 746 coal ash impoundments in 43 states nationwide, with waste sites mostly occurring in rural, low-income areas and often in communities of color. A recent report reveals that, despite federal rules enacted to remediate these sites, very few of the nation’s almost 300 coal plants have done so. Nor do they have any plans to.

Groundwater sampling at the New Castle plant showed arsenic levels 372 times higher than EPA health standards.

Coal ash contains at least 17 toxic heavy metals and pollutants including lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium, and selenium, all of which can endanger human health, and at least six neurotoxins and five known or suspected carcinogens. Research shows that prolonged exposure to coal ash via air or water can affect every major organ system in the human body, causing birth defects, heart and lung disease, and a variety of cancers. Coal ash pollution has also caused fish kills and deformities in aquatic life. 03-23-23

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