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Report: Toxic pollutants leaking from 12 Iowa coal storage sites
But Iowa utilities say they are in compliance with EPA rule
Twelve sites in Iowa that store coal ash — a waste product formed during coal-fired energy generation — are leaching toxic pollutants into the environment, according to a new report released Thursday.
These sites, including one in Linn County, are among at least 265 coal-fired power plants across the United States contaminating groundwater, representing 91 percent of the nearly 300 evaluated sites, the report by nonprofits Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice found.
Coal ash contains toxic pollutants that can cause cancer, disease and bodily and neurological damage. Many coal-fired power plants historically have disposed of coal ash in unlined surface impoundments — known as coal ash ponds — or landfills, where it can leach into nearby water sources. An Earthjustice database found that regulated landfills and ponds across the country hold more than 2 billion cubic yards of coal ash — enough to fill about 600,000 Olympic swimming pools.
The 2015 Environmental Protection Agency coal ash rule prohibited further use of coal ash ponds and landfills, and it established groundwater monitoring, cleanup and reporting requirements for qualifying locations.
In their new report, the nonprofits evaluated the cleanup plans that power plants have proposed since the 2015 EPA ruling. The vast majority of power plant owners are not proposing any treatment for groundwater at contaminated sites, the report said. By not fulfilling these requirements — and more — from the EPA’s rule, the report said that many of the country’s coal-fired power plants were out of compliance.
“Our report documents the industry's widespread refusal to clean up the toxic mess they've made,” said Earthjustice attorney Lisa Evans. “Coal plants are polluting the nation's water illegally and getting away with it.”
Alliant Energy and MidAmerican Energy, operators at some of the 12 Iowa sites named in the report, say they already are following the EPA’s standards and regulations for coal ash disposal.
Under the coal ash rule, every coal plant owner is required to monitor nearby groundwater and publicly report the data. Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice compiled those results and used them for their analyses. Between the new report and its 2019 predecessor, the nonprofits analyzed data from 292 coal plants between 2015 and 2019.
The new report highlighted the sites across Iowa that had pollutant levels exceeding safe health-based thresholds:
- City of Ames Municipal Electric System (City of Ames)
- Burlington Generating Station (Alliant Energy)
- Lansing Generating Station (Alliant Energy)
- Louisa Generating Station (MidAmerican Energy)
- M.L. Kapp Generating Station (Alliant Energy)
- Muscatine Power & Water CCR Landfill (Muscatine Power & Water)
- Neal North Energy Center (MidAmerican Energy)
- Neal South Energy Center (MidAmerican Energy)
- Ottumwa Generating Station (Alliant Energy)
- Prairie Creek Generating Station (Alliant Energy)
- Sutherland Generating Station (Alliant Energy)
- Walter Scott Jr. Energy Center (MidAmerican Energy)
Several of these facilities reported their coal storage units were within 5 feet of groundwater, according to the report. The EPA also determined most of the units were in contact with groundwater. And, according to an Earthjustice analysis, many of the state’s coal ash ponds are unlined.
Some of Iowa’s coal-fired power plants are either retired or retiring, like Alliant Energy’s Lansing plant — which is the last of the company’s Iowa generating stations to send material to coal ash ponds. Others have switched their fuel from coal to natural gas, like Alliant’s Burlington plant.
But, without proper remediation, the legacy of the coal ash on the sites — and its impacts to surrounding communities — will live on.
“Simply shutting down a power plant … does nothing to correct the contamination that has already occurred on-site,” Evans said.
Responses to the report’s findings
Alliant Energy — which owns six of the sites — has met all safety requirements for its coal ash pond embankments, said spokesperson Melissa McCarville in an email. Most of the company’s ponds have already closed; the rest are scheduled to close by 2023. Alliant will monitor groundwater near the retired coal ash ponds for at least 30 years.
“Alliant Energy takes environmental compliance seriously,” McCarville said. “For sites that need more groundwater monitoring, we will perform it. If corrective action is needed, we will take it, as prescribed under the (EPA’s ruling).”
MidAmerican Energy — which owns four of the sites — has closed the site at its Louisa power plant, said spokesperson Geoff Greenwood in an email. The company is in the process of closing its remaining ponds, including the site at Walter Scott Jr. Energy Center — which was the most contaminated site in Iowa, according to the report.
In all cases, the company is removing coal ash that’s in contact with groundwater, Greenwood said: “MidAmerican impoundment facilities do not impact area waterways or drinking water, and the data that we collect and monitor supports that conclusion.”
He also added that industry experts have called report’s validity into question, saying it “grossly mischaracterizes” the EPA’s coal ash rule and its implementation.
Donald Kom, director of the city of Ames’ electric department, said the city hasn’t used its coal ash site since about 2015. The landfill is lined and will be reinforced with a new liner next year as part of its closure plan.
“We haven't violated any of the coal ash rules and the requirements that we have to do,” Kom said.
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