Ash produced after burning coal in power plants is polluting groundwater with toxins like arsenic, and disposal sites at two coal-fired plants in Wyoming ranked third and fourth worst for contamination nationwide, according to a report published Monday by environmental groups.
The polluted groundwater was not unknown to the utilities or the state prior to the report, both of which note that remediation is in progress. But the data published by the Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice is now publicly available due to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Coal Ash Rules of 2015.
Wyoming plants are not unique. By the groups’ accounting, 91 percent of the country’s coal-fired power plants — that have monitoring data available — have reported toxins like lithium and arsenic exceeding safe levels since the reporting requirements of the Coal Ash Rules came into effect last year.
Contamination was reported at four sites in Wyoming.
PacifiCorp’s Jim Bridger and Naughton power plants, outside of Rock Springs and Kemmerer, respectively, placed third and fourth worst in the report’s ranking. The utility’s Dave Johnston power plant near Glenrock was noted, and Basin Electric Power Coop’s Laramie River Station coal plant outside of Wheatland reported groundwater contaminants related to coal ash disposal.
At the Jim Bridger and Naughton plants, selenium and lithium were found in concentrations 100 times federally safe levels for drinking water. Arsenic in the groundwater at Naughton and Jim Bridger was five times safe concentration levels, the report notes.
At the Dave Johnston plant in central Wyoming, lead tested double safe levels, while farther east and south in Wheatland, lithium was found in levels three times the safe standards at the Laramie River Station site.
The utility PacifiCorp acknowledged that contaminants have tested at unsafe levels and that remediation — in compliance with state and federal standards — is in progress at Wyoming sites.
Dave Eskelsen, spokesman for the utility, said the contamination levels should be taken in context, acknowledging that the base water quality at its power plant sites is poor.
“From our point of view the levels are not particularly high when you compare them to existing background levels,” he said. “That’s water that can’t be used for any purpose other than some industrial uses.”
But Eskelsen also noted that the report holds these sites to an unfair water quality standard: the standard for drinking water.
Where the report notes that selenium contamination at Naughton was 100 times safe levels, the reality from the utility’s reporting was closer to a 12-fold exceedance, of groundwater standards, he said.
Eskelsen said that the utility’s three power plants cited in the report have at no time posed a hazard to drinking water sources for Wyomingites.
“I think the overarching message that we would like the public and customers to know is that we have been managing these facilities quite responsibly … for quite a number of years,” he said.
The Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality is a permitting authority for coal ash disposal sites in the state, and regulators were aware that some of the sites named in the environmental report Monday had exceeded safe levels of some toxins, said Keith Guille, spokesman for the department.
Most recently, the utility had reported as much.
In December, PacifiCorp notified state regulators that it had detected a number of carcinogenic toxins in the groundwater under its coal ash ponds and landfills.
The contaminants in the groundwater included arsenic and cadmium near the Dave Johnston power plant, lead and selenium at a coal ash disposal pond at the Jim Bridger plant and both radium 226 and radium 228 in two ponds at the Naughton plant.
The state has required monitoring of these facilities for many years, Guille noted.
“We were aware of issues at several of these impoundments. In fact we were working with (the utility) to close and remediate them,” he said, noting closure plans for ponds at both Naughton and Bridger due to contamination.
As to why these issues continue in the state, Guille said that remediation is a complicated process and some of these sites are old.
“Trying to tackle those issues, it takes time. It takes time and work,” he said.
Coal ash has been a pinch point for environmental groups like the Sierra Club for some time. The group threatened to sue Basin Electric over the Laramie River power plant for its delay in publishing its crisis management plan for if its coal ash ponds fail.
For Connie Wilbert, the Wyoming chapter director of the Sierra Club, coal ash contamination is sometime invisible to the public, particularly in rural Wyoming where power plants often sit by smaller population centers. In the case of Laramie River, it was the threat to multiple nearby water systems and the Grayrocks Reservoir that had the Sierra Club concerned.
Generally speaking, the public isn’t aware of how toxic coal ash is, Wilbert said. But when it comes to burning coal for electricity, there is little about coal that doesn’t have a toxic imprint, she noted.
And as Wyoming considers transitions away from coal, the cleanup costs and responsibilities of these sites need to be understood and taken seriously, she said.
An example of how transition can be risky for Wyoming under poor policy approaches came up in the recent legislative session when a bill was passed encouraging utilities to sell coal-fired power plants rather than close them down.
Critics like the Sierra Club pointed out that sale to a smaller, possibly less financially secure, company than the utility increases the risk that cleanup will fall on the state and taxpayers.
It’s an issue that other states have faced. Coal ash cleanup at the troubled Colstrip power plant in Montana could cost between $400 million and $700 million, according to a legislative memo from state regulators, reported on in the Billings Gazette in January.
“These waste ponds are so toxic. The environmental cleanup is big, and it really has to be done properly,” Wilbert said. “I don’t think the general public has a good concept of that whole issue.”
For Eskelsen, of PacifiCorp, the utility is adept at handling its coal ash sites, some of which the utility has operated for decades in Wyoming.
In other states the utility has dealt with remediation — from hard rock mining to a site where previous owners had repurposed industrial drums leading to significant contamination, he said.
Its plans for closing up coal ash sites at Wyoming plants often include leaving the coal ash in place but constructing barriers to keep it from migrating. The ash legacy of power plants like Dave Johnston is not minor. A pond at the plant north of Glenrock held 17.5 million tons of ash as of 2016.
But the utility and the state both argue that they are up to the task of dealing with coal ash going forward. Remediation of the sites where coal ash has recently polluted the groundwater includes making sure that the pollution isn’t repeated, Eskelsen said.
Guille, of the Department of Environmental Quality, said cleanup of these sites, some of which were built under much older regulations, is a process.
“I’m very well-aware that we would all like it to be faster,” he said. “But groundwater is not a simple thing to address when you have contamination.”