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‘Beneficial reuse’ of coal ash could taint water supply

By Ron Seely, Cole Monka, Rachael Lallensack, Daniel McKay, Kate Golden
Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

It’s not a good sign when even the dogs won’t drink the tap water.

“They sniff it and then drink the bottled water we pour,” said Caledonia resident Frank Michna, one of hundreds of southeastern Wisconsin residents whose wells are contaminated by pollutants that may be coming from buried coal ash.

Michna’s well is tainted by boron and molybdenum. Molybdenum is a naturally occurring metal that can cause health problems such as gout, a form of arthritis, if ingested at high levels. The chemical boron, also naturally occurring, has been shown to cause digestive problems and harm male reproductive organs.

The source of those and other contaminants in the wells could be coal ash from We Energies’ power plants, according to a study released in November by Clean Wisconsin, an environmental advocacy group. Much of the ash has been used as fill for construction projects under a program called “beneficial reuse,” endorsed by the state and federal government.

And it appears that Michna’s predicament in southeastern Wisconsin could be shared by other well owners throughout the state. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has confirmed 157 cases of proven or potential damage from coal ash, including 14 in Wisconsin.

In a long-awaited ruling, the EPA on Dec. 19 labeled coal ash as nonhazardous waste, on the same level as household trash, and established stricter guidelines for disposal and monitoring of ash.

The federal rule was sparked largely by the failure of large coal-ash-storage ponds, especially in southern states. But the rule has implications for Wisconsin because of the volume of ash that is used in construction projects. Those uses will continue to be allowed under the new rule.

Regardless of what happens in the wake of the new federal regulations, millions of tons of coal ash have been buried beneath Wisconsin’s landscape. The coal ash, material that is left after coal is burned for fuel, contains concentrated levels of hazardous substances such as boron, molybdenum, chromium, lead, arsenic and mercury.

Tyson Cook, director of science and research for Clean Wisconsin, said the group focused its study on southeastern Wisconsin because of the availability of data. But coal ash is everywhere, he said, and so may be pollution from that ash.

The ash is used for concrete, asphalt, wallboard and construction fill in buildings and highways.

Contaminants from loose ash can more easily leach into groundwater. In its new rule, the EPA cited the potential risk of using unencapsulated ash but stopped short of requiring more regulation of such uses.

 

Study links pollution, ash

 

Clean Wisconsin found that, of the 1,000 wells studied in southeastern Wisconsin, 45 percent showed levels above the state Department of Natural Resources enforcement standard of 40 parts per billion, and of those about half also tested above the state health standard of 90 ppb. The Wisconsin Department of Health advises that water with levels at or above 90 ppb not be used for drinking or cooking.

The closer the wells were to coal ash reuse sites, the higher the molybdenum levels, according to the study. The same was true of arsenic.

The DNR disputed the report’s findings. Ann Coakley, DNR director of waste and materials management, said the Clean Wisconsin study relied on too little data from too large an area to definitively blame coal ash.

In 2013, the DNR investigated molybdenum contamination in 24 wells but found evidence linking the pollution to coal ash “inconclusive.”

Record keeping for beneficial reuse is spotty, so it is unclear how much Wisconsin ash has been disposed of in loose form. The Clean Wisconsin report cited studies from the EPA and elsewhere that showed, nationwide, more than 26 million tons of coal ash were disposed of in unencapsulated form in 2012.

Loose fill may be connected with undrinkable water at the Yorkville Elementary School in Racine County, according to the Clean Wisconsin report. Well tests in 2013 turned up high levels of molybdenum. And We Energies records showed 856 tons of bottom ash had been used as fill at the school in a construction project, Clean Wisconsin found.

 

Buried coal ash widespread

 

Before coal ash was regulated in Wisconsin, utilities legally dumped tons of the material in empty lots, waterways, landfills and other places.

Scott Reigstad, a spokesman for Alliant Energy, said about 83 percent of the more than 324,000 tons of coal ash produced by the company’s plants in Columbia, Sheboygan and Grant counties goes to beneficial reuse.

Most of what was reused went into concrete and asphalt, which does not leach as easily into groundwater. The remaining 21,000 tons went toward mine reclamation, fill, soil stabilization and other uses.

About 17 percent of all the coal ash produced by the company in both Iowa and Wisconsin goes into landfills or coal-ash ponds where the ash is stored as a sludge or slurry, Reigstad said.

 

DNR: More study beneficial

 

Despite the DNR’s critiques of the Clean Wisconsin report, Coakley said the agency would be especially interested in learning more about the connection of coal ash to molybdenum contamination. She added, however, that it is unlikely the agency would conduct those studies on its own because of a tight budget.

The DNR is instead interested in collaborating with a research institution that can take the lead on such studies, Coakley said.

But Michna said it is beyond time for studies. He said he thought he was safe from contaminants after he sank a 300-foot well in 2007 at his Racine County home.

But several years later, he and his family started suffering from mysterious illnesses, including gout and gastrointestinal problems.

Well tests showed high levels of boron and molybdenum.

Now, the Michnas buy five bottles of water a month for their drinking water. They installed a $3,000 filtered water softener.

Michna said the assessed value of his new home has dropped from $385,000 to $270,000.

“This was supposed to be our paradise,” he said.

 

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