Pollutants judged too high at 4 Arkansas waste sites

Utilities disagree with calculations

Four of Arkansas' five coal-fired electrical plants have coal ash waste sites with levels of various pollutants that are too high, according to a report by an environmental watchdog group.

Environmental Integrity Project analyzed reports from 265 coal-fired power plants that have monitoring data and found that groundwater near 242 of them "contained unsafe levels of one or more of the pollutants in coal ash," said the report, which was released earlier this month.

"Many of the coal ash waste ponds are poorly and unsafely designed, with less than 5 percent having waterproof liners to prevent contaminants from leaking into the groundwater, and 59 percent built beneath the water table or within five feet of it," the group said in a news release.

Most Arkansans' drinking water comes from surface water sources, although groundwater wells exist in the counties that have coal-fired plants, according to information from the Arkansas Department of Health.

The reports analyzed came from March 2018 groundwater testing data, the first required under the 2015 federal Coal Ash Rule. The group compiled the data into a spreadsheet with Earthjustice, the Sierra Club, Prairie Rivers Network and volunteers. The groups have been vocal opponents of coal-fired power plants and favor renewable energy to replace them.

"I think it [the study] underscores what we've been saying, and that is it's a pretty destructive fuel source," said Glen Hooks, executive director of the Sierra Club's Arkansas chapter.

"We need to get off of coal and look to clean our fuel sources," Hooks added.

Utilities don't all agree on how the group calculated the pollutant levels. American Electric Power uses a different process that it called "more complex" to determine the safety of nearby groundwater, spokesman Peter Main said. Using that process, the Flint Creek and John W. Turk coal-fired power plants are "not causing levels of any of the substances being monitored to exceed EPA standards," Main wrote in an email to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Chuck Barlow, Entergy vice president of sustainability and environmental policy, said the utility has not done a thorough analysis of the Environmental Integrity Project's methodology, but "we have no indication of any threat to public health."

The utility has done background monitoring and some additional sampling, which is all that has been required under the federal rule. The data used by the Environmental Integrity Project are limited to what utilities have done so far to establish background levels, not subsequent monitoring, Barlow said.

Based on a look at that, Barlow said any pollution that might exist is not shown to be drifting off site and thus is not posing any danger to drinking water or public health.

"We would say that it is premature to say that there are any problems on the site," he said.

The Environmental Integrity Project calculated the mean concentration for each chemical "in each well across all sampling grounds." The group further removed test results collected from wells above where the groundwater flows from the landfill to the lower wells. The group also removed any downward wells where the mean concentration was lower than the highest upper well's mean concentration of that pollutant in that disposal area, according to the methodology explained in the report.

Next, the group compared each result against health-based standards, such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Maximum Contaminant Levels, for 23 substances.

The group found excessive amounts of several chemicals in the groundwater near the coal ash disposal sites. Coal ash ponds at 241 of 256 tested coal-fired plants nationwide -- 91 percent -- had at least one substance that was at an unsafe level.

The groundwater near the Entergy Arkansas-run White Bluff coal-fired plant near Redfield had the most exceedances. It had excessive lithium, cobalt, molybedenum, beryllium, boron and sulfate, according to the report. The groundwater near the Entergy Arkansas-owned Independence plant near Newark had excessive boron.

The groundwater near the Southwestern Electric Power Co. and Arkansas Electric Cooperatives-owned Flint Creek coal-fired plant near Gentry had arsenic, cobalt and molybedenum levels considered unsafe, the report said.

The groundwater near SWEPCO's John W. Turk coal-fired plant in Fulton had excessive lithium, the report said, while the Plum Point Energy Station in Osceola did not have any excessive chemicals, according to its test results.

Arkansas was not listed among the group's 10 "worst" states with groundwater contamination from coal ash.

State Desk on 03/17/2019