Data Analysis Finds Most Power Plants Contaminate Groundwater

Mar 5, 2019

Coal ash waste at the Colstrip power plant
Credit Alexis Bonogofsky

Coal power plants in Wyoming and Montana are among those contaminating groundwater, as are most all coal plants, according to a new report from the Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice.

The study is based on newly available groundwater monitoring data the coal industry released publicly last March as a requirement of federal regulations finalized in 2015.

According to the National Coal Ash report, conducted by Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice, more than 240 coal power plants across the United States produce unsafe levels of pollutants - like arsenic, which is associated with a higher risk of cancer, and mercury, which can create dangerous conditions for fish.

At a press teleconference Monday, Environmental Integrity Project attorney and lead author on the report, Abel Russ, said almost all coal plants studied are contaminating groundwater.

“It could be coming from older, unregulated ash dumps on the property or it could be coming from something else, and sometimes it’s coming from all three, and that leave a tiny sliver of the industry, 11 plants, where the groundwater meets drinking water standards.”

Colstrip Steam Electric Station in southeast Montana and Lewis and Clark Station in northeast Montana are among those with pollutants present at unsafe levels.  

Wyoming made the “top ten” contaminated sites list twice for the Naughton power plant and the Jim Bridger power plant, both in the south of the state.

Among the report’s recommendations is that the Environmental Protection Agency test private drinking water wells and bodies of water within a few miles of power plants to ensure that all are clear of contaminants.

The study also suggests requiring power plants to dispose of coal ash, a byproduct of energy production, using dry methods, as opposed to the more common use of “ponds,” which often leak into local groundwater.