Ruling Could Pollute Drinking Water State-Wide
EPA opens door to reuse of coal ash, despite evidence it's contaminating wells in Wisconsin.
Study links pollution, ash
Cook’s group found that, of the 1,000 wells studied in southeastern Wisconsin, 45 percent showed levels above the DNR enforcement standard of 40 parts per billion, and of those about half also tested above the state health standard of 90 ppb. The Wisconsin Department of Health advises that water with levels at or above 90 ppb not be used for drinking or cooking.
The closer the wells were to coal ash reuse sites, the higher the molybdenum levels, according to the study. The same was true of arsenic.
The DNR disputes the report’s findings, noting “significant shortcomings” in a formal response. Coakley said the Clean Wisconsin study relied on too little data from too large an area to definitively blame coal ash.
“The department does not concur that there is a clear correlation between the elevated molybdenum in groundwater in southeast Wisconsin and the beneficial use of ash from coal-fired power plants,” said the agency’s response to Cook and Clean Wisconsin.
In 2013, the DNR investigated molybdenum contamination in 24 area wells but found evidence linking the pollution to coal ash “inconclusive.”
State not tracking fate of ash
Record keeping for beneficial reuse is spotty, so it is unclear how much Wisconsin ash has been disposed of in loose form. The state does not require coal-burning utilities to disclose where and how they beneficially reuse much of their coal ash. Plus, what records of disposal activity do exist are not around long; Steve Kraus, a spokesman for Madison Gas & Electric, said utilities are only required to keep records for five years.
The Clean Wisconsin report cited studies from the EPA and elsewhere that showed, nationwide, more than 26 million tons of coal ash was disposed of in unencapsulated form in 2012.
Coakley said the DNR does not keep records on whether reused coal ash is encapsulated or loose at specific sites.
A school with bad water
Loose fill may be connected with undrinkable water at the Yorkville Elementary School in Racine County, according to the Clean Wisconsin report.
School District Administrator David Alexander said the DNR asked the school to test its well water in 2013. Those tests turned up high levels of molybdenum — 138 parts per billion, above the state’s 90 ppb health advisory level. The EPA says children should not drink water for even a single day from wells with more than 80 ppb of molybdenum.
Now, water fountains at the school are criss-crossed by blue tape to keep students from using them. Alexander said it costs about $8,500 a year for the district to supply the school with bottled water. Culligan water coolers are placed in the hallways. Tap water is not used to prepare food in the kitchen.
“It seems like you’d have to drink liters and liters and liters per day in order for it to cause much of a health concern at the concentrations that we have here, but nonetheless, we’ve just decided it’s the prudent thing to do.” Alexander said.