Investigations into multiple Wyoming coal ash ponds operated by the state’s largest utility company revealed groundwater contamination far exceeded federal limits. The results have prompted the company to consider corrective measures and solicit public comments this month.
Tests conducted at the Jim Bridger and Naughton power plants in southwestern Wyoming, both owned by PacifiCorp, tested positive for chemicals considered toxic to humans and animals. The company identified high levels of more than half a dozen chemicals — from arsenic and lead to radium and selenium — at the Jim Bridger power plant, according to the company’s investigation.
Power plants can convert coal into electricity by burning the mineral. But in addition to supplying about 27 percent of the nation’s electricity, coal-fired facilities also produce coal combustion residuals, or coal ash, a dusty byproduct chock full of chemicals. Companies must safely dispose of these leftovers, often in dry landfills and or ponds.
For its part, PacifiCorp has emphasized its commitment to remedying the areas where chemicals exceed acceptable levels. The report prompted the company to solicit public input and prepare to take remediation efforts, according to Dave Eskelson, a spokesman for the utility company.
“The overall objective is to identify any environmental impact … and remove the source of the impact,” Eskelson said. “Even when the monitoring shows the impacts of compounds outside the impoundments in shallow groundwater, all those are confined to company property. It’s not a threat to our drinking water supply.”
The company held three public meetings this summer to present the results from its annual report and respond to community concerns.
But environmental groups are reluctant to take the company at its word, pointing to the irreversible harm groundwater contamination causes to the environment and the public.
“Its not at all surprising that they learned their coal ash ponds are leaking and contaminating water sources,” said Connie Wilbert, director of the Sierra Club Wyoming Chapter. “It’s been happening all over the U.S. and causing serious problems. … The (chemicals) seep into the ground. It’s not rocket science.”
Earlier this year, the Environmental Integrity Project, a nonpartisan organization researching pollution, published a report on the 100 million tons of coal ash generated by power plants each year. It ranked the Jim Bridger and Naughton power plants in Wyoming as the third and fourth most contaminated facilities in the country, respectively.
Groundwater on the Jim Bridger and Naughton power plants contained lithium and selenium at levels 100 times above what is considered safe. The report also said the groundwater at the Dave Johnston power plant near Glenrock contained high levels of arsenic, boron, cobalt, lead, lithium and sulfate.
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“All three of the power plants have leaking coal ash ponds with contaminated water,” Wilbert said. “We are strongly urging the company to do a really good job at cleaning them up.”
But Eskelson at PacifiCorp said comparing the groundwater on the power plants’ properties to clean drinking water was misleading.
“If you compare our findings with a drinking water standard it does appear to be alarming,” Eskelson admitted. But the groundwater is not appropriate for drinking water to begin with, and therefore is not an appropriate standard to test the contaminated water against, he said.
“(The chemicals) are not a health threat to humans or livestock (because) all the contamination is on the property we own,” he added, “but that still means we need to monitor and remediate it.”
Rocky regulatory changes
The Obama administration in 2016 beefed up federal regulations for utility companies processing coal. Companies are required to comply with groundwater standards at their power plant sites and issue annual reports.
But the Environmental Protection Agency under President Donald Trump has submitted proposals to whittle away some of these regulations around coal ash storage, causing several environmental organizations to sound the alarm.
As for Wyoming, public officials at the Department of Environmental Quality, an agency charged with distributing permits to utility companies, have been working to standardize both state and federal requirements to ensure coal ash sites remain safe and are cleaned up upon closure.
“It’s always important to work toward remediation of contaminated sites,” said Keith Guille, a spokesman for the agency. “Whether these are the coal ash ponds or impoundments or a landfill, groundwater contamination has happened in our past. And as we have moved forward, we have become better about protecting our natural resources. I know that those companies will work toward that cleanup or closure of their facilities.”
PacifiCorp will accept public comment on contamination issues at its coal ash ponds until Aug. 26.