Groundwater beneath unlined coal ash disposal ponds outside Glenrock, Point of Rocks and Kemmerer had above standard levels of carcinogenic toxins like radium, Rocky Mountain Power reported to state regulators this month.
The contaminants in the groundwater include, but are not limited to, 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.
Burning coal for power 24 hours a day leaves behind significant amounts of ash. That ash can contain toxins that are hazardous to human health at certain levels, like mercury and radium. Wyoming companies dispose of both dry ash and ash that’s been mixed with water into a sludge in pits and landfills located near the plants.
The Wyoming coal-fired plants were not alone in reporting water contamination during monitoring of coal ash sites. In total, 67 plants across 22 states recently noted contaminated groundwater below their coal ash ponds and pits, according to environmental groups that pulled the data from utilities’ public reports.
In response to their finding, Sierra Club, Earthjustice and others petitioned the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit on Wednesday to stay EPA rules changes, which extend the time period for companies before they are forced to close unlined, leaking ponds or ponds sitting within 5 feet of groundwater.
The federal coal ash standards that required the public notice are relatively new. Finalized in 2015, the coal combustion residuals standards came into effect gradually, making 2018 the first year that this level of public disclosure and company remediation of groundwater was required.
“For the first time, utilities have admitted that they’ve violated federal and state groundwater standards by polluting our water with toxic coal pollution,” Lisa Evans, a former EPA lawyer and now senior counsel for Earthjustice, said in a statement. “Instead of moving to protect people from cancer, the Trump administration wants to allow these polluters to escape their cleanup responsibilities.”
The coal ash disposal ponds in Wyoming have not, to date, contaminated drinking water or surface water, Spencer Hall, a spokesman for the utility, said in an email last Friday. Rocky Mountain Power is currently assessing their findings and continuing to monitor to determine if the coal ash ponds are “having an impact.”
“PacifiCorp has performed all the monitoring and analysis required to supply information to the state of Wyoming, and is committed to compliance steps that will continue to protect the environment and human health,” Hall said.
Hall said the company would be presenting its remediation steps next year.
Environmental groups are watching utilities closely, concerned that some may try to avoid compliance with remediation plans that are required under current law, due to proposed changes from the Trump administration. Remediation plans for the Wyoming coal plants are due to the state by January and to the public by March.
Earlier this year the Trump administration finalized amendments to the coal ash rules, but broader proposals to change these standards, including allowing companies to dispense with the new reporting requirements if they can prove that contamination will not migrate into the top of the aquifer, have not been finalized.
“The utility is not allowed to rely on any proposal that was made by the Trump administration,” said Evans, of Earthjustice, in an interview Friday. “That’s not law yet. They have to comply with the law today. So they should be taking immediate measures in their clean-up plans.”
The utility’s first notice, provided to the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality on Dec. 12, is only required to report that standards were exceeded. Rocky Mountain Power has not publicized the extent of the concentrations of contaminants.
In January, however, a groundwater monitoring well at Dave Johnston’s ash pond — located about 1 mile north of the plant, which sits by the North Platte River — recorded arsenic levels that were three times greater than safe drinking water standards, according to Rocky Mountain Power.
The Dave Johnston pond held 17.5 million tons of coal ash as of 2016.
Coal ash ponds and landfills are currently overseen in Wyoming by both the state and the feds.
Wyoming is currently developing rules to comply with the Obama-era standards of 2015. With state rules that meet federal standards, Wyoming can be granted authority to monitor its own coal ash disposal.
Those new rules are expected to be finished and put out for public review next year, said Keith Guille, spokesman for the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality.
The fight over coal ash rules is just one aspect of a widespread battle between environmentalists and the Trump administration on Obama-era regulations. At the Environmental Protection Agency, this has included the rollback of the Clean Power Plan and proposed changes to regulations limiting methane pollution from oil and gas facilities. Most of these battles have led to court cases with judges as the arbiter between the administration and groups like Sierra Club, or local conservation groups in Wyoming like the Powder River Basin Resource Council.
The coal ash standards have already had some wins in the courts, Evans said.
“You have the pull back and forth,” she said. “You have the courts saying the rules should be stronger. You have industry pressuring the Trump administration to roll back the rules, and you have an administration that wants to roll it back.”