Coal ash ponds found to leak toxic materials

June 10, 2016
A study of power plants in five states has found that metals and other toxic materials are able to leach out of the unlined pits in which coal ash is currently stored. These materials have been found in surface waters and shallow groundwater, and may be able to work their way to the deeper groundwater resources used for drinking water wells. Credit: Duke University

A Duke University study of coal ash ponds near 21 power plants in five Southeastern U.S. states has found evidence that nearby surface waters and groundwater are consistently and lastingly contaminated by the unlined ponds.

High levels of toxic heavy metals including arsenic and selenium were found in surface waters or groundwater at all of the sites tested. Concentrations of trace elements in 29 percent of the surface water samples exceeded EPA standards for drinking water and .

"In all the investigated sites, we saw evidence of leaking," said Avner Vengosh, a professor of geochemistry and water quality in Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment. "Some of the impacted water had high levels of contaminants."

The study, which appears June 10 in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, did not test drinking water wells, but that will be the next phase of the research, Vengosh said.

During the summer and fall of 2015, the team sampled 39 surface water and seep samples from coal ash ponds at seven sites. They also analyzed water chemistry data from 156 shallow groundwater monitoring wells near coal ash ponds at 14 North Carolina that had been compiled by the state's Department of Environmental Quality.

Shallow wells—typically 30- to 50-feet deep—are not as deep as a drinking water well, which might be 100 to 300 feet. But there's a potential the shallower contamination could flow deeper and affect drinking wells, Vengosh said.

Not only was the evidence of contamination widespread, it also appears to be persistent in the environment. Some of the sites studied have been retired and no new coal ash is being deposited there, but nearby surface waters, and in one case groundwater, were still being contaminated.

"The degree to which leakage affects the concentration of toxins in nearby waters varies because of several factors, including the nature of the coal ash, processes in the pond and the flow through the local soil," said Jennie Harkness, a Ph.D. student at the Nicholas School and the lead author of this study.

While it is legally permitted for some coal ash ponds to release liquid effluents to nearby through regulated outfalls, the new data show that these ponds are also leaking in unpermitted ways. "Coal ash ponds pose risks to the environment and resources," Vengosh said.

The highest concentrations of dissolved metals and metalloids (manganese, vanadium, selenium, arsenic and molybdenum) were found in shallow wells near a retired ash-disposal site in Tennessee. The contaminated groundwater there had concentrations exceeding and aquatic life standards for cadmium, iron, nickel, lead, selenium and zinc.

Vengosh said it is reasonable to conclude from these findings that physically removing the ponds would leave "a legacy of contamination. You would still have a major issue to address the subsurface groundwater contamination. After decades of leaking, the impact has already happened."

Explore further: Oxygen key to containing coal ash contamination

More information: Jennifer S. Harkness et al, Evidence for Coal Ash Ponds Leaking in the Southeastern United States, Environmental Science & Technology (2016). DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.6b01727

Related Stories

Oxygen key to containing coal ash contamination

April 12, 2016

As energy companies decide what to do with aging coal ash disposal facilities in North Carolina and across the nation, they may be overlooking a fundamental but potentially critical variable—oxygen.

Scientists look deeper for coal ash hazards

November 29, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- As the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency weighs whether to define coal ash as hazardous waste, a Duke University study identifies new monitoring protocols and insights that can help investigators more ...

Duke to provide water to NC residents with tainted wells

May 13, 2015

Duke Energy says it will begin delivering bottled water to homeowners living near its coal ash pits in North Carolina, even as the nation's largest electricity company denies responsibility for its neighbors' tainted wells.

Recommended for you

Heavy oils and petroleum coke raising vanadium emissions

December 15, 2017

Human emissions of the potentially harmful trace metal vanadium into Earth's atmosphere have spiked sharply since the start of the 21st century due in large part to industry's growing use of heavy oils, tar sands, bitumen ...

Climate change made Harvey rainfall 15 percent more intense

December 14, 2017

A team of scientists from World Weather Attribution, including researchers from Rice University and other institutions in the United States and Europe, have found that human-caused climate change made the record rainfall ...

17 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Jeffhans1
3.7 / 5 (6) Jun 10, 2016
Coal ash has some of the highest concentrations of rare earth metals. Sell it to refineries, don't let it sit in leech into the water tables.
Pooua
5 / 5 (2) Jun 10, 2016
Coal ash has some of the highest concentrations of rare earth metals. Sell it to refineries, don't let it sit in leech into the water tables.


I saw a news article about two months ago saying that someone has developed a practical method of extracting those REMs.
retrosurf
3.9 / 5 (7) Jun 10, 2016
The rare earths are the least of your problems.
There's a full gram of heavy metals per kilogram of retained fly ash and bottom ash.

At half a gram of rare earths per kilogram of Appalachian coal ash, you have ...

A thousand grams of ash in the pit,
A thousand grams of ash.
You wash it around, and render it down,
.. 999.5 grams of ash in the pit.

Which is to say,

"And we are sick and tired of hearing your song
Telling how you are gonna change right from wrong
'Cause if you really want to hear our views
"You haven't done nothing"!"

Otto_Szucks
1 / 5 (5) Jun 11, 2016
Coal ash has some of the highest concentrations of rare earth metals. Sell it to refineries, don't let it sit in leech into the water tables.
- Jeffhans1
It may be too expensive to separate it out, so they just dump it. They may have considered it at one time though.
gkam
1 / 5 (4) Jun 11, 2016
Meanwhile, the waste wind from the windfarms was welcome in the warm spillage from the PV panels, and elsewhere they are checking Japanese children for thyroid tumors.
KelDude
5 / 5 (4) Jun 11, 2016
At the end of the day, who is going to pay for the cleanup? You bet, the local government with perhaps some federal help. It should be the polluter not the people (IE:Gov't). I'm always amazed that the coal industry has so much power in the US. It's all about the money. Scrape off mountain tops into downstream valleys to provide more of that "black death" to the world. It's the most polluting way to generate energy yet all you hear are the "nay sayers" on climate change is that it's a "UN conspiracy for world control". What crap! Currently it's a corporately controlled world. Corp's don't care about the environment or the people, just the money. The coal industry is a glaring example of the worst of the worst.
gkam
1 / 5 (7) Jun 11, 2016
That is why I chose to earn a Master of Science in the field of energy and the environment (1982). It gets me depressed and angry at the way we are killing our Life-Support system, the Natural Environment, which cleans our water, makes our oxygen, and provides us with food.

Bu we did not expect conditions to degrade so quickly, nor the success of a disgusting effort of misinformation by the coal, oil and gas industries. The American People showed they are suckers for a good propaganda campaign by Big Business. They even let a spoiled brat from the oil industry start a war to steal the oil of another nation - they were that easy to fool.

But practicality will win, since we simply cannot afford the costs of oil, coal, and nuclear power.
Otto_Szucks
1 / 5 (3) Jun 11, 2016
Uh Oh...Theghostofotto1923 aka CapnRumpaThump aka Oinkle Ira and over a hundred more sock puppet nicks will be along soon to whack gkam for bragging once again.
Actually, it's not so much that gkam brags a lot - it's more the fact that gkam is commenting on Physorg in the first place. And it is well known that Theghostofotto1923 considers Phys.org to be POSSESSED ONLY by Theghostofotto. ( and sock puppets, of course).

Theghostofotto1923 (Nazi) feels bitterness and enormous angst...even a touch of fear every time that Otto sees gkam commenting on this site.
It has to be fear and angst that motivates Ottopussy to fight with gkam at every opportunity. If Ottopussy wasn't fearful of gkam, then why would he/she/it pay so much attention to a known braggart? Why?

Thegoatofotto inhabits many sock puppets, often in the same thread, just to show us who is the REAL BOSS of Physorg.

ISN'T THAT RIGHT, LUCI?
Estevan57
4.2 / 5 (5) Jun 11, 2016
Your constant whining about him is a sure sign that he just totally owns you. Think about it.
Otto_Szucks
2 / 5 (4) Jun 11, 2016
Your constant whining about him is a sure sign that he just totally owns you. Think about it.
- Est57
LOL more like Otto owns YOU, which is why you are known to vote WITH Ira and CapnRumpy as a voting block against gkam.
I don't give a crap about the ratings, so you can down vote me all you want.
Otto told a big fat lie about Pirouette saying that she saw 900 foot tall glassy headed martians in the NASA photo (laying down), then when she left Physorg, Otto claimed that I had said it even though at that time, I never even saw Pirouette's pictures of Mars.

So now you're defending Otto (the Nazi) and his lies. Good. Theghostofotto needs all the friends he can get.
ISN'T THAT RIGHT, LUCI?
Estevan57
4.2 / 5 (5) Jun 12, 2016
Funny you should mention Otto... 5 times.

I vote how I want to. Just like everyone should. I gives 5s to Otto occasionally, and have given 1s also. Same goes for gkam. And you. You can look it up yourself if you have the time.

Do you care so much about what Otto says that you blather it about the website for months? You should clone yourself, form a girls band and call yourselves "Otto Says".

Ownership.

Otto_Szucks
2 / 5 (4) Jun 14, 2016
@Estevan57
I already have a girl's band - my wife and my daughters.
You do go on, for some strange reason, about "ownership". Otto owned you already, Esai. And now you don't feel right when anyone has the gall to give the lowdown on Theghostofotto's actual reasons for being on Physorg, A few years ago when you and your boyfriend were ragging on each other constantly day after day, I considered intervening to assist you, but I saw where you were going with all the personal and business info you willingly gave to Otto, so I left you alone and didn't intervene on your behalf. So now you're running interference for Otto - blocking and tackling. How does that barrel feel, the one that Otto's got you over?
Estevan57
5 / 5 (4) Jun 14, 2016
Funny you should mention Otto... 5 times.

Ownership.
Da Schneib
5 / 5 (5) Jun 15, 2016
Coal is the dirtiest business that's quasi-legal. They cheat every way they can.
TheGhostofOtto1923
3 / 5 (4) Jun 15, 2016
That is why I chose to earn a Master of Science in the field of energy and the environment (1982)
George kamburoff has never explained how he got a real MS while being an undergrad dropout, per the info he himself has shared freely with other participants here at physorg.

He has shared parts of his thesis however which turned out to be some sort of popsci article equivalent. And it was easy to find out that his 'degree' was an honorary thing which required no coursework or exams and merely form-filling and article-writing and fee-paying.

So of course we can conclude that the garbage he spouts about energy and the environment is made-up. Nevertheless, a little research most always confirms that this is the case.

-Like how exhaust stack emissions are governed by tables which were actually superceded over 40 years ago by CFR regulations.

-Like how manure dust is not called volatile solids nor is it a constituent of air pollution in the central valley.

etcetc.
TheGhostofOtto1923
3 / 5 (4) Jun 15, 2016
It gets me depressed and angry
But in contrast it gives you quite a thrill to lie about who you are and what you know.

This is the real george kamburoff.
BiteMe
Jun 16, 2016
This comment has been removed by a moderator.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.