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Town's Toxic Water Embodies U.S. Coal Ash Challenge

Dirty legacy contaminates Indiana town’s groundwater

April 29, 2011 |
Circle of Blue

  Coal ash roads are a common sight in the Town of Pines, and their runoff has contaminated the small community’s ground water.

TOWN OF PINES, Ind.—Peggy Richardson was still in high school nearly 40 years ago when trucks began dumping the ash from a nearby coal-fired power plant in this working-class community 50 miles east of Chicago.

Like the other 800 residents, she and her family never considered whether there was a risk when a heap of ash—known here as Yard 520—steadily grew into a mountain of coal wastes a half-mile long and four stories tall, higher than any building in town.

Even today the risks of coal ash in the Town of Pines are not perfectly clear. In addition to Yard 520, ash was spread across the town, dumped as the foundation for roads and as fill for construction sites. Nine years ago, a resident alerted the federal Environmental Protection Agency that there was something wrong with their drinking water. The EPA found heavy metals and other contaminants in groundwater in the region.

Richardson, who lives just blocks from the ash mountain, has a good idea that exposure to contaminated water and such close proximity to Yard 520 is not safe. What leads her to this conclusion? During an interview in her kitchen here she reached into a drawer and pulled out a stainless steel table knife she bought less than a year ago. The metal blade was scarred and pitted. “This water eats my sink and silverware,” she said. “What has it done to me?”

Though it is one of the largest coal ash piles in the Great Lakes basin, Yard 520 is just one example of the trail of some 600 impoundments, landfills, and storage ponds for coal wastes that are scattered across the Midwest and other regions of the United States, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Some 63 are toxic and leaking. Most have grown to huge dimensions, in part because neither the federal nor state governments required the same stringent health and environmental safeguards that apply to municipal landfills or chemical toxic waste sites.

That may change. In December, 2009, a coal ash storage pond in Tennessee ruptured, spilling more than a billion gallons of ash slurry laden with heavy metals—a spill 50 times larger than the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster—into tributaries of the Tennessee River. In a report prompted by the Tennessee incident, the EPA detailed 44 “high hazard potential” coal ash storage pond dump sites across the country.

Yard 520 is not one of those high hazard sites. But its rigorously documented history of seeps and water contamination make it an emblem of the multiple costs of generating power from coal and a factor in the growing national debate over clean energy, climate change and the American economy.  (Read more)

This article is republished by special permission of Circle of Blue, a news and science organization based in Traverse City, Mich. that covers the global freshwater crisis. Aaron Jaffeis a video producer and reporter for Circle of Blue. Reach him at aaron@circleofblue.org.

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