Arsenic is everywhere, but it’s harmless in small doses. Very small doses. Think microscopic, occasional doses.
A naturally occurring element with the atomic number 33 on the periodic table, it’s been used in its concentrated form as a rat poison, in pressure-treated wood as an insect repellant and as recently as World War II, as an agent of chemical warfare. Whether natural or manufactured for industrial applications or academic research, pure arsenic can take the shape of rocks, grainuals, powder and even liquid solutions.
But as a byproduct of coal combustion, it’s invisible to the naked eye. Along with other pollutants such as lead, mercury, lithium, cobalt and selenium, among the complications of adequately conveying the nature of arsenic’s toxicity is being able to visualize it when talking in terms of parts per million or parts per billion.
Kansas State University’s Center for Hazardous Substance Research puts it this way: “A way to visualize one part per billion (ppb) in water is to think of it as … about one drop of water in a swimming pool. One part per million is about one cup of water in a swimming pool.”
Beginning in 2017, as part of new mandates by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Alabama Power and other utilities were required to begin monitoring groundwater concentrations of certain pollutants, including arsenic, at coal ash ponds nationwide. At Plant Barry, Alabama Power installed an initial groundwater monitoring network comprising 16 wells around the perimeter of its coal ash pond, testing samples in May and November of 2018.
When the results came in, it showed arsenic levels exceeding the EPA’s maximum contaminant levels by an average of between 30 percent and 604 percent in at least 11 of those wells, with “statistically significant levels” of cobalt at two of the wells in May and one of the wells in November. One test showed a level of arsenic at 973 percent above the EPA’s limit.
The tests, which were conducted by Alabama Power but also independently tested and confirmed by a third-party laboratory, used the EPA’s standard of measurement for arsenic: milligrams per liter. It’s essentially the same as parts per million (ppm) and the EPA’s maximum contaminant level for arsenic is just .01 milligrams per liter, or .01 ppm.
In terms of parts per billion, the EPA’s maximum contaminant level for arsenic is just 10 drops of liquid in a swimming pool. While the percentages sound alarming, the difference between what is acceptable by the EPA and what was found in the groundwater around Plant Barry’s coal ash pond is essentially less than 100 drops of liquid in that rhetorical swimming pool.
It doesn’t sound like much, does it? But consider this: According to the nonprofit organization Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR), “chemicals move at different rates through groundwater, so when contaminants leach out of coal ash disposal sites, some take longer than others to reach places where they may expose humans to risk.”
In a report published after the Kingston, Tennessee, coal ash spill in 2008, the organization noted: “The EPA has conducted sophisticated modeling to estimate how long leaching substances would take to reach their maximum concentrations in well water. For unlined surface impoundments, the median average years until peak well water concentrations would occur is estimated to be 74 years for selenium, 78 years for arsenic and 97 years for cobalt.”
In other words, if Alabama Power decided to dewater and cap-in-place its coal ash pond at Plant Barry this minute, arsenic levels at the site would not peak until the year 2097. So if they currently average as much as 604 percent above the EPA’s limit, what will the averages be then?
“The implication of these projections is that coal ash toxicants are going to be with us — and with our descendants — for a very long time,” the report said. “Because many coal ash contaminants are persistent in the environment, they do not disintegrate or lose their toxicity. They may be contained or may disperse into the environment but they never really ‘go away.’ They remain in the environment and continue to pose exposure risks for years, even generations.”
Barbara Gottlieb, director for environment & health for PSR, testified in a 2017 case involving the EPA’s revamped Effluent Limitation Guidelines that the waste stream created by coal-burning power plants “creates a health risk every single day,” especially with arsenic.
“Arsenic is a known human carcinogen,” she testified. “It contributes to increased mortality from multiple internal organ cancers (liver, kidney, lung and bladder) as well as an increased incidence of skin cancer in populations consuming drinking water high in inorganic arsenic.”
That’s not just her opinion either; there are precedents. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conducted a historical study of arsenic exposure in the mid-2000s and concluded: “Arsenic can cause serious effects of the neurologic, respiratory, hematologic, cardiovascular, gastrointestinal and other systems … Arsenic is a carcinogen in multiple organ systems.”
Alabama Power’s tests also found detectable levels of barium, calcium, chromium, cobalt and molybdenum. While not all of those elements are known carcinogens, they are present in coal ash and are also indicative of residuals leaching into the groundwater. Mobile Baykeeper Program Coordinator Cade Kistler said if Alabama Power’s testing results from the already capped-in-place ash pond at Plant Gadsden are any indication, groundwater pollution will be an ongoing problem.
Alabama Power was fined $250,000 at the beginning of May because groundwater tests near the Plant Gadsden pond showed high levels of arsenic and radium. Those levels were self-reported by the company, as required by law. Last year Alabama Power was fined $1.25 million for groundwater pollution violations at six other coal ash ponds in the state. The maximum the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) can fine Alabama Power per violation is $250,000.
Plant Gadsden’s pond was originally just 68 acres before it was closed. After dewatering, it was reduced to 55 acres before it was capped-in-place in a process that was completed in early 2018.
“We have an example of cap-in-place at the easiest facility in the state,” Kistler said. “And your first groundwater monitoring reports come out and it’s already failing. I think Alabama Power’s argument is: ‘Well, it’s not failing that bad.’ And: ‘It’s just these wells over here.’ And: ‘It was just 100 times more than the arsenic limit.’ Right? So we can argue about how bad you’re failing … but you’re failing. And now they want to do it at 600 acres.”
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