Coal ash dumping ‘poisoning water supplies’

Drinking water supplies and streams across the US are being poisoned with toxins such as arsenic and lead as a result of coal mining firms dumping coal ash into mines, lawyers have warned.

Non-profit environmental law firm Earthjustice is calling for “minefilling”, where ash is dumped into active and abandoned mines, to be regulated by federal authorities.

A report commissioned by the organisation found that coal ash is becoming increasingly toxic – an unfortunate result of the pollution controls designed to keep toxins out of the air.

Waste Deep: Filling Mines with Coal Ash is Profit for Industry but Poison for People claims that minefilling coal ash fast-tracks pollutants into groundwater, because the toxins can seep from the mines directly into the water table.

Earthjustice has slammed the lack of regulation of the practice, arguing that most coal ash minefills and subject to less safeguards than municipal waste landfills even though coal ash is more toxic than household waste.

“EPA’s (the Environmental Protection Agency) own scientists admit that exposure to coal combustion waste presents a cancer risk nine times greater than smoking a pack of cigarettes a day,” said Ben Dunham, Earthjustice environmental health policy analyst.

“This is hazardous waste. The federal government needs to start treating it as such.”

The report has been released in the wake of the coal ash disaster in Tennessee, which has been labelled America’s worst environmental disaster by some commentators.

Each year, an estimated 25m tonnes of toxic coal ash are dumped in mines, unintentionally contaminating water with levels of lead and arsenic that are many times higher than safe drinking water standards, according to the report.

It recommends regulations to make coal mining firms to prioritise the safe reuse of ash, to keep coal ash out of groundwater, and to establish cleanup standards to put right any damage done by minefilling.

President-elect Barack Obama’s nominee to lead EPA Lisa Jackson promised during her confirmation hearing on January 14 to conduct a nationwide review of coal ash sites, labelling many of them as “disasters waiting to happen”.

Kate Martin

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