EPA: Colorado home to high number of coal-ash disposal ponds

Colorado ranks a surprising fourth on the list of states hosting wet coal-ash dumping ponds. An Environmental Protection Agency list obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request filed by environmental groups lists 40 ponds in Colorado. The Agency tallied 584 ponds located around the country.

Coal ash, the residue produced by coal-fired power plants, is a toxic stew of hazardous materials such as lead, arsenic, selenium, boron, thallium and cadmium, to name a few, and, according to a separate EPA report, unlined coal ash waste ponds carry a risk of cancer that is 900 times above what the federal government defines as acceptable.

Coal ash disposal made national headlines late last year when a Tennessee Valley Authority retention pond collapsed, releasing more than 5 million cubic yards of coal-ash-contaminated mud into Tennessee’s Emory River. The ramifications of that disaster are still being felt locally and nationwide, and the recent EPA analysis is a result of environmental pressure to better define the scope of the issue.

According to a release from Earthjustice, the Sierra Club and the Environmental Integrity Project, the number of ponds in the report was nearly twice the number previously identified.

“Because the EPA does not regulate the waste from coal-fired power plants, the agency had no information on the location and nature of the 584 wet ash dumps located throughout the U.S.,” according to the release.

“EPA has acknowledged that wet disposal of coal ash presents a greater risk to human health and the environment than dry landfills because hazardous chemicals are more likely to migrate from such dumps and the large impoundments present a risk of catastrophic failure.”

Colorado’s 40 ponds compared to 53 in top-ranked Indiana, 44 in Kentucky and 43 in Iowa, where disposal sites such as a quarry in Waterloo (used by the state’s university system) have drawn sharp criticism from experts, as detailed extensively by Colorado Independent sister site, the Iowa Independent.

In Colorado, 35 of the 40 ponds are associated with Minnesota-based Xcel Energy power plants; three are linked to Westminster-based Tri-State Generation and Transmission facilities; and two are Platte River Power Authority ponds. Only six of the Xcel ponds (three in Hayden and three in Brush) even garnered a “low” hazard potential, while the rest are rated as having no hazard potential.

But that should not be overly reassuring for Colorado residents concerned about cancer risk and groundwater contamination, according to Lisa Evans, senior administrative counsel for the environmental law firm Earthjustice.

“You don’t need 10 million tons of ash to create a problem, especially if you have limited water supplies [like Colorado],” Evans said. “I wouldn’t be too sanguine about Colorado’s off the hook as far as any kind of damage. You have numerous good-sized ponds, and what are the controls in places that have precious or scarce groundwater? Is there damage being done?”

Two categories of the report Evans found particularly disconcerting were the age of many of the ponds and the lack of information about recent oversight.

“You have in Colorado not very many entries either in the last company inspection or the regulatory inspection, so in Colorado is the regulatory agency aware of any potential problems?”

And regionally, states like New Mexico and Wyoming has coal-ash ponds rated as “significant” in the hazard potential category. For example, the Jim Bridger Power Station has two ponds in Rock Springs, just across the state line in Southwest Wyoming, that are both in the significant hazardous risk category. And a coal ash pond near Prewitt, N.M., 95 miles south of Farmington in the Four Corners region is also rated at the significant hazard level.

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About the Author

David O. Williams

David O. Williams is an award-winning reporter who has covered energy,
environmental and political issues for the Colorado Independent since
2008, delivering impact journalism on a wide range of topics. A former
editor for the Vail Daily and Vail Trail, Williams’ work also has
appeared in numerous publications since 1988, including the New York
Times, Chicago Tribune and Denver Post. He appears periodically as a
guest on Rocky Mountain PBS and David Sirota’s show on 760 AM in
Denver. Williams is the founder, part owner and editor of Real Vail
and Real Aspen.

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