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Coal ash is contaminating water across the nation with toxic chemicals—and Maryland is home to to one of the most polluting sites, according to a new study

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DHARNA NOOR: It’s The Real News, I’m Dharna Noor in Baltimore.

Most coal plants across the nation are contaminating nearby groundwater with toxic pollutants like arsenic, lithium, and chromium. That’s according to a new report from the Environmental Integrity Project and Earth Justice. The report found that Maryland has some of the worst contamination. It ranks seventh in the country for unsafe levels of pollutants. And this report comes after Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, was officially confirmed as the head of the EPA.

Now joining me to talk about this are two guests. We have Abel Russ, who is a Senior Attorney at the Environmental Integrity Project who worked on the report. And also joining us is David Smedick. He’s the Maryland Beyond Coal Campaign Representative from Sierra Club’s Maryland chapter. Thank you so much, both of you.

DAVID SMEDICK: Thanks for having me.

DHARNA NOOR: So Abel, let’s start with you. Your report found that groundwater near 242 of the 265 power plants that you tested had unsafe levels of contaminants. How high were those levels, and were you expecting that magnitude of contamination?

ABEL RUSS: So they ranged from a little bit above health standards to hundreds of times above health standards. And I was expecting to see widespread contamination, because everywhere I’ve looked in the past, any place coal plants dump their coal ash on site, they typically have contaminated groundwater. I wasn’t necessarily expecting the magnitude of contamination to be as high as it was. A couple of the sites we mentioned in the report, not the Brandywine site, but some of them had levels of arsenic that would cause cancer in one out of six people if they were to drink it. Brandywine is not far behind, it’s also very contaminated, but the magnitude of the pollution problem was a little bit more than I expected to see.

DHARNA NOOR: And Brandywine being the site in Maryland that was tested.


DHARNA NOOR: David, could you talk about that a little bit? Seventh in the country, seventh highest level of contaminants. Talk about what the effects of that could be on people. And who is going to be affected, who lives near that Brandywine site?

DAVID SMEDICK: Yeah. Again, thanks for having me. And being on this top ten list is not a distinction that I really want to have for Maryland, I think that’s the opposite way we want to be going. But the Brandywine community has been suffering from fossil fuel pollution for decades. There are other fossil fuel facilities there, there’s a coal plant that has historically dumped at the Brandywine site for decades, there are plants that are around there, there’s mining operations for not coal or anything, but there are other industrial facilities around the community. And we’ve, over the last few years, started to hear from them about their concerns about the impact that it has had for generations. And to know that there is contamination from one of the most toxic byproducts we have from the fossil fuel industry, coal ash, that is getting out from the landfill, it’s really disturbing and something that the state needs to be acting on.

On the specific area, there in Brandywine around the landfill, but also expanding out, how are we actually going to be moving beyond coal as a state? So the community in Brandywine, I can’t speak for them because I don’t live there, I live here in Baltimore, but I know that it has been a constant conversation down there for the last few years, is how are they going to move past this fossil fuel industry and the lasting impacts that it has had on the community, and how can the rest of the state learn from their experiences and help build up their movement moving away from these toxic facilities?

DHARNA NOOR: And Abel, what can the effects of these contaminants be? You mentioned, of course, that arsenic can be carcinogenic, can cause cancer, but you also found things like lithium, chromium. What can the effects be if they leak into drinking water?

ABEL RUSS: In general, we see a whole bunch of pollutants that are present at unsafe levels, and some of them are cancer causing chemicals like arsenic, or what EPA calls probable carcinogens like lead. Cadmium is another carcinogen. A lot of the other ones are neurotoxins, so there are the kinds of things, like lead, that if you drink during early childhood, can lead to a lower IQ later in life, or other neurological problems.

So at the Brandywine site in particular, I just have to look down at my notes here, boron is one. Boron is a key indicator of coal ash, it’s something you see everywhere you see coal ash pollution, you’ll see high levels of boron, it doesn’t often come from anything else. And boron is associated with health effects in humans and also ecological risk. So in humans, it causes things like low birth weight, testicular atrophy, developmental and reproductive effects. That’s based on lab studies with animals, but typical risk assessment practice using the same kinds of things could happen in humans. And then, it’s also toxic to aquatic life. Lithium has a range of health effects on people, but among other things, it affects the nervous system, so it’s a neurotoxin.

Molybdenum was one that was pretty high at Brandywine, and that causes kidney related effects, gout-like symptoms in people. And selenium is an interesting one. Selenium was elevated at the Brandywine site, and that’s toxic to humans, but it’s more notorious for its effect on fish, it’s very toxic to fish. It can cause deformities and reproductive problems in fish, and it also makes fish toxic to eat for humans. And those are just some, there are others. Those are some of the pollutants that we saw at high levels at Brandywine.

DHARNA NOOR: And you gleaned this data from industry itself, because in 2015, the EPA issued the U.S.’s first regulation on coal ash, the Coal Ash Rule. And that, it seems, established groundwater monitoring requirements for coal ash dumps, but also required power companies to make the data available to the public. That’s how you obtained the data, correct? Industry was required to make it available? And how is so much contamination possible if the EPA is regulating coal ash?

ABEL RUSS: So that’s a good question. Until 2015, the EPA wasn’t regulating coal ash, it was regulated by the states, and it was regulated as a regular solid waste at the time. I don’t think any states had specific coal ash rules, they had solid waste rules that they applied to coal ash. And Brandywine was one of them. There was a federal consent decree that the Maryland Department of the Environment entered into with the owners of Brandywine several years ago. My organization was involved and we’ve been tracking it since then. But state by state the requirements varied. Some states required monitoring, some didn’t. And when states did require monitoring, they might require owners to measure certain pollutants that are generic solid waste pollutants, and they’re not necessarily specific to coal ash.

So the federal rule in 2015 is the first time we’ve seen a snapshot of the entire coal industry, where they look for the pollutants that are known to be associated with coal ash. And so really, I guess the reason why you see all of these problems is that the regulatory process at the federal level is just starting right now, and so we’re waiting to see how it plays out.

DHARNA NOOR: And are there specific populations that are more affected in specific demographics? For instance, we know that often, fossil fuel facilities are built near communities of color, that the young and the elderly can be most affected by the effects of this kind of contamination. Are you seeing that in the map of the places that you’ve seem most affected?

ABEL RUSS: Yes, sometimes. It varies a little bit state to state. But in general, I think it’s fair to say that coal ash has a disproportionate impact on low income and populations of color. And one of the things that we particularly worry about is subsistence fishing, or even recreational fishing with a lot of fish consumption involved, because that’s something that tends to skew towards environmental justice communities as well, and that’s one of the pathways associated with a lot of the risk from coal ash.

DHARNA NOOR: David, what kinds of concerns are You seeing from the folks around Brandywine in Prince George’s County here in Maryland?

DAVID SMEDICK: Yeah, this landfill has been a topic of conversation lately. And we’ve been talking and kind of following the lead of some of the local organizations, like the local Riverkeeper there, highlighting the fact that people don’t want to live around coal ash landfills. A lot of times they’re not aware that they existed, but as it starts to pile up and you start to get more public hearings about requests for expansion, and then people get a little concerned about that, “What does that mean, how long is this facility going to be operating in my community?” We started to hear that a couple of years ago, and there was a lot of movement around asking the question exactly like how I just said it, “When is this going to stop in our community; when are we going to stop getting trucks and rail cars and big dumps of ash coming back into Brandywine?”

And we’re starting to see that bubble up. I know that the local councils there are discussing it and have been discussing it, and I think that we’re seeing a turning point where in southern Prince George’s County, people are saying, “We’ve had enough of this. We want the fossil fuel industry out of our backyard. We don’t want to be a dumping ground for toxic ash that’s going to be leaking into our groundwater.” And these reports are highlighting it. So I do think that people are starting to listen to the local concerns there and we’re going to be hopefully seeing some good progress away from these dump sites.

DHARNA NOOR: And to be clear, is industry also required to measure levels of contaminants in drinking water specifically?

ABEL RUSS: They’re not required to measure the stuff in drinking water, they are required to measure the groundwater on site in the wells that they’ve installed close to their coal ash dumps. If that contaminated groundwater migrates off site and they find evidence that it has migrated off site, then there might be other requirements that follow from that, like testing drinking water wells. But at the outset, and so far, right now, there’s been no requirement to test drinking water wells.

DHARNA NOOR: And so, now what are the next steps, I guess? Again, we’re speaking after Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, officially heads the EPA now, he was officially confirmed the week before last. What impact do you expect that will have on coal ash contamination nationwide? And then, David, what steps does that mean that local governments can take in the absence of any federal action?

ABEL RUSS: Should I start, and then I’ll pass it over to you, David?


ABEL RUSS: So at the federal level, what we expect to see next is corrective action. Because the way the rule works, there is this groundwater monitoring program, and if you find evidence of contamination, it kicks you into a corrective action process where, among other things, you have to have a public meeting and tell the community what you’re planning to do about the problem, and then you have to take steps to bring the groundwater back to levels that are below the drinking water standards. Not all sites will go into that process, even if they’re contaminated, unfortunately.

And another thing to remember about the rule is that it only regulates ash dumps that were in use as of 2015, so anything that was closed before 2015 isn’t regulated, and that includes most of the Brandywine landfill, actually. They’re currently monitoring and regulating a small active portion of the landfill, but there’s this whole other section that’s been buried and closed where it is a while back, that’s not regulated by the federal rule. There is a separate state law process, a federally enforceable consent decree that’s being overseen by the state agency, but the federal corrective action process will only apply to the new part of the landfill.

DHARNA NOOR: And David, what about in Maryland and Prince George’s County specifically?

DAVID SMEDICK: Yeah, so as Abel just mentioned, the still active part is where the rubber may meet the road. But our hope would be that you go back to and monitor and enforce and clean up the spaces that are not active anymore at the Brandywine landfill. So we hope that the Maryland Department of the Environment can actually do its job and clean up and make sure the community is protected there from this toxic pollution. And we really need to rely on our Department of the Environment here at the state level, because as you alluded to, we know that the EPA and the federal government is required to take next steps, but how much faith do we really have in that?

I think that we’ve seen a lot of backsliding and attempts to backslide on a lot of EPA and federal rules on environmental protection, especially around coal. So we need our local governments at the city, county, and state level to step up and make sure that our communities are protected against the ash landfills, as well as the coal plants themselves. Here in Maryland I think it’s time for us to be looking at what does it mean for the state to actually move beyond coal? We have our ash landfills, we also still have six large operating coal plants here in the state. Part of the way to fix the continued ash problem is to make sure that you stop burning coal in the first place.

So how are we actually going to take those next steps to clean up the historic pollution that is impacting communities and could be impacting communities into the future, and then how are we actually stopping the source of the toxic ash by stopping to burn coal? And that’s something that the states here really need to start thinking about, and how we’re going to do that in a way that is coupled with these protections and cleanups in local communities, and that the workers that would be impacted by it are actually fostered and moved into a comparable clean energy economy.

DHARNA NOOR: So does this report, I guess, give you grounds to sue and take legal action against these power companies who are contaminating beyond, it sounds in many cases, beyond compliance?

ABEL RUSS: So the rule doesn’t include an avenue for litigation just based on the groundwater data, and that’s on purpose. It’s designed to be self-implementing, which means that an owner of a site like Brandywine will do the groundwater monitoring, and if they find a problem, then they have to follow the corrective action steps that are laid out in the rule. So rather than having you violate your permit and then someone sees you and then you have to do something, this just skips the step of litigation, you go right into the corrective action without having to be sued. That said, if an owner doesn’t follow the steps in the rule with regards to the groundwater monitoring, they don’t stall the wells as they’re supposed to, or they don’t measure the right things, or they don’t report the data, or they don’t move into corrective action appropriately, those are all things that citizens can sue over. But the fact that the groundwater is contaminated by itself is not something that you could sue over.

DHARNA NOOR: And David, here in Maryland, in Prince George’s County specifically, what kinds of steps do you think that citizens can take to put pressure on these power companies?

DAVID SMEDICK: Sure. I think, as always, as a grassroots movement, you contact your elected official first and foremost at the city and the county level there in Prince George’s, so that it can then be elevated to the state level as well. I really do think that talking to your neighbors, talking to the town over to understand what is happening in your community, just starting the conversation is really important. And then go have a meeting with your city council member, with your county council member, and then start talking about what needs to happen at the General Assembly. We all know that Maryland’s General Assembly is a very active place, especially this time of year, but every year that our elected officials gather and make new laws, it’s time for our grassroots community members to force the conversation about how we’re going to finally move off coal.

We all want clean energy, we all want climate action, but how we are really going to address the issue of the toxic pollution is really just talk about how we’re going to stop burning our dirtiest fossil fuel. So just talking about it as many times as you can, like we do in these conversations through the media. But it really comes down to face to face conversations with your neighbors and your elected officials.

ABEL RUSS: I just want to add quickly to what David said, because he’s right on. One of the major problems with the federal rule is that it doesn’t go far enough, it’s not very strong, and during this administration, we don’t expect the EPA to enforce it at all. So we see the best benefit of the federal rule is to put the information in the hands of the public, and at that point, we’re hoping that states and local governments will take action. And we’re seeing that in Maryland, we’re seeing in other states, and so I think that is exactly right. You take the data from the federal rule and apply it to state and local politics and see what you can get done that way.

DHARNA NOOR: Well, as you do, and as we see what comes of this data and what the response is, we’d love to talk to both of you again. Abel, David, thank you so much for being on today.

ABEL RUSS: You bet, thank you.


DHARNA NOOR: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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Dharna Noor is a staff writer at Earther, Gizmodo's climate vertical.