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Environmental Groups Cite Coal Ash Pollution in Call for Tighter Regulation

FILE - Pigs feed on a waste dumped near the cooling towers of a coal power plant near the southern town of Bitola, 200 km (124 miles) from the capital Skopje, in Macedonia, Dec. 10, 2009.

A collection of environmental groups is calling for new regulations on the disposal of waste from coal-fired power plants, saying more needs to be done to protect the public from the dangers of toxic metals seeping into ground water.

The focus of a new report released Monday by the Environmental Integrity Project is on coal ash, residue from burning coal that contains mercury, arsenic and cadmium among other contaminants.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says unless coal ash dumps are properly managed, those contaminants can pollute water above and below the surface, as well as the air.

Monday's report uses data that power companies have to report under EPA rules that went into effect last year, and finds ground water at 91 percent of power plants have levels of toxic pollutants higher than EPA safety standards.

More than half of the plants had unsafe levels of at least four toxic components of coal ash, including 60 percent with unsafe amounts of lithium and 52 percent with unsafe amounts of arsenic.

"At a time when the Trump EPA -- now being run by a coal lobbyist -- is trying to roll back federal regulations on coal ash, these new data provide convincing evidence that we should be moving in the opposite direction: toward stronger protections for human health and the environment," said Abel Russ, an attorney with the Environmental Integrity Project and the report's lead author.

The EPA launched coal ash disposal standards in 2015 in response to a series of spills of Tennessee and North Carolina that sent toxic materials into rivers.

Last year, after complaints from utilities and coal companies, the agency relaxed certain standards, including suspending groundwater monitoring requirements for some coal ash sites if it is determined pollutants would not reach the uppermost aquifer.

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist who was the acting head of the agency at the time of the rule revision, praised the changes.

"These amendments provide states and utilities much-needed flexibility in the management of coal ash, while ensuring human health and the environment are protected," Wheeler said. "Our actions mark a significant departure from the one-size-fits-all policies of the past and save tens of millions of dollars in regulatory costs."

Monday's report calls for tightening regulations to include not only ash dumps that are actively receiving material from power plants, but also ones that are inactive.

The environmental groups also want plant owners to be more transparent with their monitoring data.

"Some owners are not measuring pollutants with sufficiently sensitive laboratory methods, making it impossible to know whether groundwater is safe or unsafe. Other owners have failed to post all of the required monitoring data. More generally, owners are posting data in a variety of ways that render the data very difficult to use," the report says.

It also calls for an expansion of monitoring to include drinking water near coal ash sites.

"The Coal Ash Rule only requires on-site testing of groundwater, but contamination from coal ash dumps can flow miles offsite and threaten the safety of residential drinking water wells. Unless private drinking water wells are tested, it is impossible to determine if the health of local communities is protected."