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Report: 3 Iowa coal ash sites contaminating groundwater

A new report says three sites used to store coal combustion from Iowa utilities are contaminating ground water with arsenic and other potential toxins.

The report said coal ash storage has made ground water unsafe in the vicinity of Alliant Energy’s Lansing Station Ash Ponds and Lanfill in Allamakee County, MidAmerican Energy’s George Neal Station North in Sergeant Bluff, the George Neal Station South in Salix.

The report was released Thursday, August 26, by the Environmental Integrity Project, Earthjustice and the Sierra Club, just as the United States EPA begins hearings to consider whether and how to regulate toxic waste from coal plants.

Coal is burned by utilities to produce steam used to generate electricity. The process creates a heavy ash referred to as coal combustion waste, that is often buried in former stone quarries. They can contain signifiant levels of lead, arsenic and other toxins that can leak into ground water.

Regulation of the disposal sites in Iowa is now under authority of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

The report said groundwater monitoring has shown levels of arsenic that exceeded maximum contaminant levels for drinking water at wells near the George Neal North Generating Facility Ash Monofill since June 2001. No enforcement action has been taken, the report said.

Arsenic concentrations exceeding the drinking water standards were measured at one monitoring well at George Neal South since the year 2000, when monitoring began. The monitoring wells also exceeded safe drinking water standards for iron, manganese and sulfate.

The report found evidence of monitoring problems at the Lansing facility in Allamakee County, with one monitoring well too dry to obtain samples on some occassions. State officials have not required monitoring wells to assess possible contamination from ash ponds northwest of the landfill or at any other off-site location near the Lansing facility, the report said.

The state did not take action on the George Neal sites because even though the arsenic levels  did not exceed “background” arsenic levels in the surrounding ground water, according to Alex Moon, section supervisor for comprensive comprehensive planning at the Iowa Department of Natural Resrouces.

Moon said arsenic levels in groundwater are sometimes in exceedence of the state drinking water standards regardless of the presence of man-made intrusions like the coal combustion wastes. In such conditions, Moon said the state does not take enforcement actions against coal combustion waste disposal sites operating nearby if the toxin levels monitored in the wells are consistent with the area’s background levels of those .

The Lansing monitoring well was only intermittently dry, Moon said. He said the state has asked the disposal site operator to verify if the well is a good working montiring well or not.

“We acknowledge the rules need improvement,” Moon said. “We need a better monitoring program with more wells.”

Moon said rules are also needed to ensure that every coal combustion waste site has an impermeable liner to prevent toxins from leaching into the ground water.

Moon said Iowa began work on tougher rules that would have required impermeable liners in all sites used to dispose of coal combustion waste. Iowa suspended its work on the regulation when the U.S. EPA began to take up the issue.

Neila Seaman, director of the Sierra Club’s Iowa Chapter, said the risks of ground water contamination from coal ash poses “vrery real risks we can’t ignore any longer.”Seaman called on the U.S. EPA to “stand up to the coal lobby and create enforceable, federal protections for all of our communities.”

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