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Beyond Coal

Coal Ash Stories

North Dakota | Pennsylvania | Delaware | Illinois

North Dakota Experiences Contamination from Two Coal Ash sites

Basin Electric Power Cooperative - W.J. Neal Station Surface Impoundment and Cooperative Power Association/United Power Coal Creek Station Surface Impoundments

Residents in two small central North Dakota towns are no strangers to the risks from coal ash storage sites.

Underwood, North Dakota, is home to several coal ash storage ponds that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) labeled "proven damage cases." The community of just over 800 people is only 50 miles north of Bismarck.

According to EPA, the ash storage/disposal ponds were constructed in 1978 and 1979, and were originally lined but developed severe leaks in the late 1970's. The ponds are operated as a zero discharge facility. Documentation from the state indicates that the ponds were constructed "directly over and adjacent to" the Weller Slough Aquifer.

Ground water monitoring at the site showed unsafe levels of arsenic, selenium, sulfate, chloride and boron. The state required the relining of the ponds with a composite liner in 1990.

In Velva, North Dakota, the coal ash impoundment for the W.J. Neal Station was an unlined, 44-acre area that received fly ash and scrubber sludge from a Basin Electric Power Cooperative coal-fired power plant. The impoundment also received other wastes, including ash from the combustion of sunflower seed hulls, from the 1950's until the late 1980's.

The community of Velva boasts roughly 1,000 residents and sits in the north central part of the state, just over 100 miles north of Bismarck.

EPA sampled the impoundment in 1982 and found unsafe levels of chromium in the pond's sediment and in nearby ground water. In response, the State issued a "special use disposal permit" to allow disposal to continue.

The facility was closed between 1989 and 1990, and the impoundment sediments were consolidated to a 22-acre area and capped. Under federal law, the site underwent an assessment in 1990 and an inspection in 1995. The assessment found elevated levels of arsenic, chromium, manganese, selenium, and sodium in nearby ground water and in the sediment of a marshy area adjacent to the closed facility.

The 1995 inspection found worse results: elevated levels of arsenic, cadmium, zinc and lead in a public water supply well, the marsh's sediments and in surface water passing through the wetland.

The inspection concluded that releases had occurred from the surface impoundment to ground water and surface because the ground water near the unlined impoundment was very shallow, and in some cases, came directly in contact with the disposed coal ash.

Research also showed that the site was operated without any control of surface waters coming into contact with the coal ash in the impoundment, with one tributary to the marsh and a nearby creek at one time flowing right through the ash disposal areas. Even as late as 1989, surface water ran directly off the site and into the marsh, with EPA saying this direct discharge was not documented as being permitted under State or Federal regulations.

Beyond groundwater contamination, coal ash storage ponds also pose the risk of rupturing, much like the massive Tennessee Valley Authority coal ash pond that burst in December 2008 in Roane County, Tennessee, spilling more than a billion gallons of coal ash sludge across hundreds of acres of land and water.

Source: EPA Office of Solid Waste's "Coal Combustion Waste Damage Case Assessments." July 9, 2007

Fly Ash Hillside Collapses on Western Pennsylvania Community

Pennsylvania Dept. of Transportation and Allegheny Energy

On January 25, 2005, the winter solitude was shattered in a small, western Pennsylvania community when a rushing rapid of a water-soaked coal fly ash raced through. Residents along Rostosky Ridge Road in Monongahela ran to their second story windows to escape what they thought to be floodwaters gushing through their neighborhood. The sound, according to residents, was like a freight train speeding through the streets. The gushing torrents brought with them massive debris, uprooted trees and rocks, all mixed with grey, wet slurry. The force was so great it actually moved a parked SUV 20 feet down the street.

Only later did residents learn the slurry was toxic coal fly ash that had been used to repair a state-owned embankment decades ago. Buried within a hillside above their homes were undocumented tons of wastes that had been given to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) as free fill material. These wastes had been generated at a local coal-fired power plant owned by Allegheny Energy (previously West Penn Power). There were no official records of having used the waste as fill material, and residents had never been told of the dangers looming uphill from their community.

The spill was estimated to contain at least 1,200 to 1,500 tons of fly ash. It buried properties in nearly 10 feet of ash slurry. Throughout the coming weeks and months the hillside continued to give way, sending additional toxic ash into the neighborhood.

Early reports of the hillside collapse brought news crews from a host of media outlets. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PA DEP) refused to acknowledge that the ash was harmful. The PA DEP also refused to assist with the clean up: officials from the Southwest Regional Office told residents to sweep the fly ash to the curb and the state would send trucks to collect it [the fly ash].

There was far too much fly ash slurry to "sweep it to the curb" and no state trucks were ever sent to collect the ash or debris. Residents were left to clean up almost entirely on their own - exposing them to weeks of direct contact with the fly ash and its toxic levels of arsenic and other heavy metals.

On February 2, 2005, residents joined with the Environmental Integrity Project, Clean Water Action and public health officials from the University of Pittsburgh in calling on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to oversee the clean up of their neighborhood. This additional call for federal assistance came after independent test results of a Forward Township fly ash sample revealed arsenic levels at more than 14 times the level of cleanup recommended for arsenic contaminated soils in Pennsylvania.

EPA did eventually send a representative to tour the site; however, community members say the representative never got out of the car and never spoke with any of the affected residents. Later, it was learned the PA DEP had refused federal clean up assistance.

Residents believe that federal assistance was refused by the PA DEP in an effort to avoid a hazardous connotation of fly ash and other coal combustion wastes (CCW). The affected families believe the PA DEP made the decision that corporate profits for coal and utility companies were more important that protecting their health.

The PA DEP has been a leader in promoting the so-called "beneficial" use of placing coal ash in coal mines and fill pits to address acid mine drainage, as well as using it as a soil amendment. Despite their assertions that this "mine filling" improves water quality, there is no credible data to back that claim. And yet there is a large amount of monitoring data demonstrating that metal levels are rising at coal ash landfill sites in Pennsylvania.

Early attempts at a PA DEP supervised clean up of the neighborhood did result in partial efforts; however, the hillside and other state owned properties were the first phases to be cleaned - residential properties were the last. And, the clean up efforts addressed only the "visible" fly ash - even though the arsenic had been driven deeper into the soil and was not "visible" in some residential areas.

The federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) did conduct a Health Assessment in the neighborhood and made recommendations that it understood would be undertaken within months of its findings. The report did indicate concern for human exposure to arsenic and other toxic metals as a result of the January 25, 2005 fly ash landslide, but it believed the exposure was to be limited. However, three years after these 2006 findings and recommendations, the final clean up is just getting underway.

Unfortunately, residents have now been exposed to long-term, chronic exposures of arsenic and other dangerous toxins while the PA DEP delayed clean up efforts. Some homeowners have been bought out in order to be able to relocate, but problems linger.


  1. ATSDR Health Consultation:
  2. KDKA TV (CBS Affiliate, Pittsburgh):
    Forward Township Fly Ash Designated 'A Hazardous Substance'
  3. WTAE TV (ABC Affiliate, Pittsburgh)
    Forward Township Fly Ash Deemed Hazardous: DEP Says No Need to Worry
  4. McKeesport Daily News, February 5, 2005:
    DEP Asks Residents to Help with Ash Cleanup by Celanie Polanick, Daily News Staff Writer

Written and edited by Heather Moyer and Lisa Graves-Marcucci

Delaware Site Sees Two Coal Ash Problems: Storage and Usage

Kit and Bill Zak live about ten miles northeast of the Indian River Generating Station - a coal-fired power plant near Millsboro, Delaware. Long-time residents of the area, they know first-hand the effects of living near the plant and its piles of dry coal combustion waste, or coal ash.

Bill Zak says the site is already home to two piles of coal ash and the facility is now applying for a permit to create a third pile.

"The difference is that for this third pile, there are more safety precautions," explained Zak. "There's a liner and a mechanical system directing run-off to a storage facility for reuse in the plant. This is opposed to before, in both the other sites, the two piles are just open exposure to the elements, the wind and rain, and they have no liners."

Bill, his wife, and many others in his community formed Citizens for Clean Power and have worked long hours protesting the permitting for the new coal ash pile based on the fact that the facility was not doing anything to fix the old piles.

"If it's required for this new pile, if that's the condition for granting the permit, why won't they remediate the old ones?" he asked.

Zak added that the previous coal ash sites have never had any real monitoring, even for the blow-off of ash by the wind. He said the community's action group on this issue have pushed for monitoring of the air and groundwater, but to no avail.

"The worry may really be from particulates that are ingested and breathed into the lungs and esophagus. The wind from the sites blows through the neighborhoods surrounding it. According to (the facility's) own report, a ton and a half to two tons of ash blow off of these coal ash piles annually."

And that's just the air pollution. The risk of water contamination is also very real. "There's the threat of a big flood, too," explained Zak. "The entire facility is built within 20 feet of a flood plain restriction - it's only six or seven above sea level. If breached by storm or hurricane, it would contaminate the entire inland bay. All they have blocking these piles from entering the bay is a 30 foot berm built of soil right at the flood plain margin."

Meanwhile, the coal ash from the Indian River Generating Station is also being used in a manner that threatens residents in another community.

Coal Fly Ash Used as Delaware Landfill Layer Near Water Table
Indian River Generating System to the Jones Crossroads Landfill

Residents in Hardscrabble, Delaware, are worried about the effects of reusing coal combustion waste. In 1988, the Delaware Solid Waste Authority agreed to use one million tons of fly ash (coal combustion waste) from the Indian River Generating Station and DuPont's Seaford nylon plant "in place of natural soil during the construction of a new cell of a sanitary landfill in southern Delaware."

When another landfill cell was constructed in 1995, fly ash was again used in the place of natural soil. Yet this new cell was found to be within several feet of the ground water table. A fourth cell was built in 1997, again with fly ash.

In 2008, a groundwater sampling test reported showed levels of arsenic and selenium in one of the landfill's monitoring wells and recommended that "attention should be given to the continued increasing trend noted in (well) SC-22. It is believed that the elevated concentrations reported are related to the fly ash used in construction of the subbase of Cell 3."

Currently, landfill officials are in discussions with the state over the permitting of a new fifth landfill cell that could also use fly ash.


  1. Sussex Green: Coal Ash Metals in Our Groundwater?
  2. Coastal Point: DNREC officials discuss plan for ash landfill cleanup
  3. US Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement
  4. Delaware Solid Wast Authority: 2008 Annual Enviromental Monitoring Report

Illinois Community Receives Burden of Coal Waste

Bunge North America Corporation

In Oakwood, Illinois, one neighborhood is seeing more than its share of polluted coal waste deposited within its borders. Over a ten year period, approximately 380,000 tons of coal combustion waste generated by coal-fired boilers at a Bunge North America Corporation facility was dumped into a ravine adjacent to the Grays Siding neighborhood.

The neighborhood is a rural subdivision of 30 homes that all draw their drinking water from ground water. The disposal was allowed without safeguards under state law as a "beneficial fill operation." According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), state testing of the waste dumped at the site found lead levels three to four times higher than the Illinois standard allowed.

In fact, testing of groundwater at 11 sites near the Bunge dumping area showed levels exceeding Groundwater Quality Standards of arsenic, beryllium, cadmium, chromium, iron, lead, manganese, nickel, sulfate, and thallium.

State testing also found high boron levels at the surface and high levels of lead, iron and manganese in two home wells in areas adjacent to the Grays Siding neighborhood. The water contamination prompted the state's environmental agency to advise the residents in these two homes to stop drinking water from their wells. The only available source of drinking water for this neighborhood comes from private drinking water wells, and no alternative source of drinking water has been provided.

In addition, the coal ash itself has been encroaching on residential property, and the residential community is adversely affected by fugitive dust from the site. The Bunge dump site is also located next to Kickapoo State Park. Drainage from the site is flowing into Number Six Lake in the park, a designated fishing lake with a boat ramp. Drainage from the lake also goes into the Middle Fork of the Vermillion River, a designated National Wild and Scenic River.

In 2001, IEPA sent a notice to the owners and operators of the dump informing them that the site was an illegal open dump. The response of the owner/operators was to claim that the site was not a landfill, but a beneficial use site and that a building would be constructed on top of the coal ash. No building or impervious surface has ever been constructed on top of the "fill" site. The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency has attempted to install monitoring wells on-site and to have some of the ash removed, but they have been unable to take these actions due to the site owner declaring bankruptcy.

Source: Comments on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's "Coal Combustion Waste Damage Case Assessment," from EarthJustice and the Clean Air Task Force. July 2007.

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