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Big Stone Coal Ash Polluting Water with Heavy Metals

December 1, 2010

A new report from the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) , in cooperation with Earthjustice and the Sierra Club, identifies the Big Stone power plant among 39 sites nationwide where coal ash is leaching arsenic and other heavy metals into drinking water and surface water. These 39 sites are in addition to 31 sites EIP identified in a February 2010 report and 67 identified by the EPA.

What does EIP’s report say specifically about Otter Tail’s Big Stone facility in northeast South Dakota?

  1. There is “Demonstrated damage to groundwater moving off-site (at northern and eastern property boundaries and south toward the Whetstone River).”
  2. “21 of 25 monitoring wells report exceedances of groundwater standards downgradient of coal combustion waste disposal units in two aquifers. Arsenic has been up to 13 times and lead up to 7 times the maximum containment level, boron up to 34 times the lifetime health advisory and sulfate up to 224 times the secondary maximum containment level at 56,000 milligrams per liter (or parts per million) . Despite mounding of groundwater at the property lines, no monitoring of nearby ponds or private wells has occurred.”
  3. There are 119 wells within 5 miles of the plant, as are the Whetstone River and Big Stone Lake.

South Dakota’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources doesn’t think the pollution comes from Big Stone’s coal ash. According to EIP, DENR says the contamination comes from “water softener brine wastes.”

A rebuttal posted at the South Dakota Department of Environment and Natural Resources’ website links the groundwater readings to a leaking brine pond that is used to store waste from water-softening treatment. One brine pond leaked before the problem was discovered in 1998, the agency said. “The Environmental Integrity Project is taking the ground water quality data gathered from a brine pond release that occurred more than 20 years ago,” the agency’s statement says. “The water treatment process used by Big Stone Power has nothing to do with its coal ash disposal practices, and in no way should be used to support any new regulations for coal ash disposal.” The agency said the soils around Big Stone also have naturally high levels of sulfate and metals.

The report was released just as public hearings across the country began on proposed new rules on coal ash disposal by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The EPA held seven public hearings around the country in September. The closest hearing to South Dakota was in Denver, on September 2 “We believe that at all these hearings, there are going to be concerned citizens wondering what impact the coal ash landfills or ponds near their house is having on their drinking water.” said Lisa Evans, senior administrative counsel for Earthjustice and a co-author of the report.

sources: SD Public News Service, August 30, 2010; Associated Press, August 26, 2010

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