In Greene County, the coal industry is omnipresent, said Veronica Coptis, executive director for the Center for Coalfield Justice. Whether it’s the mining plant over the horizon or the coal ash site around every other road bend, Coptis said residents here have gotten used to living amongst the production.
So, when the Environmental Integrity Project released a report last month describing unsafe levels of several toxins in the groundwater surrounding coal plants and coal ash landfills, Coptis said she wasn’t caught off guard.
“Living and being an organization whose membership lives in the coalfields, nothing in the report is surprising,” Coptis said.
The report, titled “Coal’s Poisonous Legacy,” found groundwater contamination at more than 265 coal plants and landfills across the country, with 91% exceeding the safe levels of pollutants set by the Environmental Protection Agency. Some of the toxins the coal ash released into the water include arsenic, boron, lead and mercury, among others.
One coal plant north of Pittsburgh, the New Castle Generating Station, was named among the top 10 worst plants in the country for pollution, releasing 372 times the EPA’s safe level of arsenic into the groundwater. Another plant named for its toxic emissions was the Hatfield Power Plant, located in nearby Carmichaels.
Abel Russ, senior attorney at the Environmental Impact Project and an author of the report, said southwestern Pennsylvania is not unlike other parts of the country that rely on coal — it’s almost impossible to find a “clean” operation.
But what sets the region apart, he said, is the high concentration of coal plants and coal ash landfills making the pollution problem all the more glaring.
“You’re in an area that has a high density of coal and coal ash, so in that way, it’s worse,” Russ said.
Pennsylvania has nine sites in total, each emitting unsafe levels of pollution into groundwater. In addition to New Castle, the region is also home to the Bruce Mansfield Power Plant in Aliquippa, the largest coal ash pond in the U.S. The pond is filled with contamination, Russ said, and will probably remain that way.
Many of Pennsylvania’s contamination sites were established before 2015 — that is, before the EPA’s Coal Ash Rule took effect. As a result, these ponds aren’t regulated and are under no federal obligation to clean up the toxins.
The toxins being released into the groundwater can cause a variety of health problems, and many are carcinogenic, Russ said. Some of the different toxins named in his report cause ailments such as kidney damage, blood disease and multiple types of cancer.
Coptis said these health concerns are why many coalfield residents choose to live on city water, which is regulated and cleared of these contaminants. Some of the area’s farmers, like Jim Cowell of Frosty Spring Farms, even water their livestock using city water to protect the animals from the toxins.
But groundwater contamination can affect residents who rely on well water for their property, and often the problems won’t surface for years.
“The problem is that the [Coal Ash Rule] doesn’t require testing of off-site wells, so we often don’t know who all has been affected,” Russ said. “There’s a health threat that hasn’t materialized yet, that might in the future.”
In other cases, groundwater will feed into surface water. Pollutants get into rivers and streams, into the food chains of aquatic plants and animals, making them unsafe to eat.
That’s what makes contamination from the Hatfield Mine so concerning, said Coptis. The plant is located near the Monongahela River, and since the plant is permanently closed, she fears cleaning the waste won’t be a priority.
“A lot of people depend upon the water quality of that river,” she said.
At this point, Russ said the best solution to reverse the effects of the toxins is simply to “remove the source.”
“Take all that coal ash out, and put it somewhere where it can’t leak,” Russ said. “And if you do that, the levels of contaminants in the groundwater should improve pretty quickly.”
The cost of removing and re-disposing of coal ash has been estimated by multiple entities, including the EPA, and could range anywhere between $7 to 35 billion. As large as the sum may seem, Russ said, spread out among hundreds of coal plants across the country, it ends up at an affordable cost.
Still, the federal government has no jurisdiction over sites established before 2015. That, Russ said, is where state governments must apply the pressure.
“In a place like Pennsylvania, that means that the state has to step in to make sure the environment is protected,” he said.
Coptis said CCJ focuses mostly on the adverse effects of coal extraction on the homes and land of residents, but it also supports legislation and regulation to coal ash toxins. One of their biggest fights is to push politicians to look past the economic perspective of coal mining, to the long-term environmental impacts.
“We need to find ways to have healthy economic options, and protect the water for years to come,” Coptis said.
With the coal industry generally faltering and new industries like natural gas and plastics moving in, southwestern Pennsylvania is a region in transition. Coptis fears that these industries aren’t any cleaner than coal, and will present the community with a whole new set of public health concerns.
Russ said other drilling could be economically viable, though, and if done right, could be healthier for the environment than in other countries.
“Maybe it is OK,” Russ said. “There are good ways and bad ways to run an industry, and there are ways to do it that are more protective of the
Coptis has a different perspective.
“We’ve seen what happens when we put all our eggs in one boom and bust industry,” she said. “I do not think it’s wise to do that same strategy again.”