New Coal Cancer Risk


A new report released today by the Sierra Club and Earthjustice highlights the previously unrecognized risk of hexavalent chromium, a cancer-causing toxic chemical, leaking from coal ash sites across the country. The report compiles new research revealing the health risks of hexavalent chromium, the high concentrations of the chemical in liquid leaking from coal ash sites, the documented sites where contamination of water has already occurred, and the magnitude of coal ash as a source of hexavalent chromium.

Hexavalent chromium first made headlines after Erin Brockovich sued Pacific Gas & Electric because of poisoned drinking water from hexavalent chromium. Now new information indicates that the chemical has readily leaked from coal ash sites across the U.S.  This is likely the tip of the iceberg because most coal ash dump sites are not adequately monitored.

In Minnesota, chromium and chromium compounds released by electric utilities and power plants are contaminating crucial water supplies, the report shows.  EPA tested coal ash at the Xcel Energy/Southern Minnesota Municipal Power Agency’s Sherco Generating Plant in Becker, Minnesota, and found that the coal ash was capable of leaching hexavalent chromium above the federal drinking water standard. Because coal ash landfills like the Sherco Plant have previously been found by EPA to leak dangerous amounts of chromium, other communities near coal-fired power plants may be at risk.

Public interest law firm Earthjustice, Physicians for Social Responsibility, Environmental Integrity Project and Sierra Club are pushing for federally-enforceable safeguards from coal ash as this new information is released. Also, in a signal that the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee recognize the hazards of hexavalent chromium exposure, they have called on U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson to testify tomorrow on a hearing about the chemical.

Coal ash, the leftover waste from power plants, contains arsenic lead, cadmium, mercury, selenium and many other chemicals that can cause cancer and damage the nervous system and organs, especially in children. Hexavalent chromium is a highly toxic carcinogen when inhaled but recent studies from the National Toxicology Program indicate that when leaked into drinking water, it can also cause cancer.

“The pollution from coal ash sites, like Sherco, is making people sick,” said Jessica Tatro, Field Organizer for the Sierra Club. “Big polluters can’t be trusted to police themselves. We need EPA to hold them accountable and finalize federally enforceable coal ash protections now.”

Among the findings of the new report:

•    The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found that the type of chromium that leaches from coal ash sites is nearly always of the hexavalent chromium variety, which is the most toxic form of chromium.
•    The threat of hexavalent chromium drinking water contamination is present at hundreds of unlined coal ash sites across the country.
•    At least 28 coal ash sites in 17 states have already released chromium to groundwater at levels exceeding by thousands of times a proposed drinking water goal for hexavalent chromium.
•    Power plants dump over 10 million pounds of chromium and chromium compounds into mostly unlined or inadequately lined coal ash landfills, ponds and fill sites each year.  The electric power industry is the largest single source of chromium and chromium compounds released to the environment.
•    The U.S. Department of Energy and electric utility industry has known for years about the aggressive leaking of hexavalent chromium from coal ash.
•    Hexavalent chromium contamination from coal ash is clearly a grave threat. Yet the U.S. EPA, which is currently in the process of deciding whether or not to regulate coal ash as a hazardous waste, has completely ignored the cancer risk of chromium in groundwater in its deliberations.

To get more involved in helping the Sierra Club Beyond Coal campaign, contact Jessica Tatro at the North Star Chapter. You can read the whole report online here as well.


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