Mar 12, 2019

Coal Ash Contamination in North Dakota Groundwater

In Fargo, N.D., the coal ash disposal landfill for Minnkota Power Cooperative's Milton R. Young Station contains pollutants including heavy metals

In Fargo, N.D., the coal ash disposal landfill for Minnkota Power Cooperative's Milton R. Young Station contains pollutants including heavy metals.
In Fargo, N.D., the coal ash disposal landfill for Minnkota Power Cooperative's Milton R. Young Station contains pollutants including heavy metals.

Unsafe contamination from coal ash disposal sites at half a dozen power plants in western North Dakota has seeped into groundwater sources, according to a report from an environmental group.

According to The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, The Environmental Integrity Project collected industry monitoring data for its nationwide report, which found that six of seven coal-fired power plants in North Dakota leaked contamination into groundwater sources at levels exceeding those deemed safe.

State health officials and representatives of the utilities that run the coal-fired power plants say none of North Dakota’s ash disposal sites fail to comply with standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency, according to The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead.

The report did not use the requirement of logging “statistically significant increases”, according to The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. The EPA uses this to determine whether higher monitoring readings reflect pollution or high background levels that occur naturally, said Chuck Hyatt, director of the waste management division of the North Dakota Department of Health.

Their methodology is different than the methodology that the EPA recommends in its CCR rule. This governs disposal of coal combustion residuals, including ash, Hyatt said.

The authors of the report said 91% of the nation's coal plants have unsafe levels of one or more coal ash constituents in groundwater, even after contamination was set aside that may be naturally occurring or coming from other sources.

Although the report said unsafe levels from coal ash disposal sites were detected in groundwater near those sites, it did not find that drinking water supplies were affected by the contamination in North Dakota, according to The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead.

“This is a wake-up call for the nation,” said Lisa Evans, senior counsel with Earthjustice, which helped the Environmental Integrity Group on the report. “Using industry’s own data, our report proves that coal plants are poisoning groundwater nearly everywhere they operate.”

The information cited in the report was recently made public for the first time under federal coal ash requirements issued in 2015, according to the The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. Nationally, groundwater near 242 of the 265 power plants with monitoring data contained unsafe levels of one or more pollutants, according to the report. Even if drinking water supplies are not immediately threatened, more stringent regulation would help before contamination gets worse and travels farther in the environment, the report said.

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