Report warns of cancer risks from power plant coal waste

Many ponds where power companies dump coal waste pose a higher-than-recommended cancer risk to people who live nearby, a study by two environmental groups shows.

Two coal waste ponds in South Carolina - one near Darlington and the other near Anderson - were among the more than 200 disposal sites without synthetic liners that were analyzed by the Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice.

But the report’s authors said the number of dangerous coal disposal sites across the state and the country is likely higher because many were not included in the federal data they used for the report. The report, released Thursday, looked at health risks from exposure to polluted drinking water.

In 2009, industry officials reported 427 waste ponds nationally, the report said. The report’s authors said they used information the EPA had withheld during the Bush Administration. The information was released in March by the Obama Administration.

The report did not mention coal ponds in lower Richland County that have leaked in an area where people drink from wells. Utility SCE&G has said it doesn’t know of any drinking water wells polluted by pond leaks.

“The EPA’s data shows that the disposal of coal ash, especially in unlined ponds, results in alarmingly high risks of cancer and diseases of the heart, lung, liver, stomach and other organs and can seriously harm aquatic ecosystems and wildlife near disposal sites,” said Eric Schaeffer, a former EPA enforcement official who runs the Environmental Integrity Project.

The report focused on disposal sites that don’t have synthetic liners to prevent leaks. Unlined ponds of ash and other coal waste present a lifetime cancer risk from arsenic 2,000 times greater than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s goals for safe drinking water, according to the report.

The report also looked at unlined or poorly landfills used by power companies to dispose of coal ash. Those do not present the same health threat as unlined ponds. But exposure to arsenic from unlined, leaking landfills poses a cancer risk up to 50 times higher than the EPA recommends in its regulatory goals. Five landfills in South Carolina, all in Berkeley County, were included in the study.

Ben Moore, an official with the S.C. Coastal Conservation League, said the dangers of coal ash ponds underscore why South Carolina should not build a new coal-fired power plant near Florence.

Reach Fretwell at (803) 771-8537.