"All the ponds in Missouri for which we have data are causing groundwater contamination. … This is a statewide issue."

Maxine Lipeles on Sunday, February 24th, 2019 in a newspaper article

Are all Missouri coal ash ponds really causing groundwater contamination?

In a Feb. 24 article published by St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Maxine Lipeles, director of Washington University’s Interdisciplinary Environmental Clinic, made a jarring statement about the condition of Missouri’s groundwater as a result of coal ash contamination.

"All the ponds in Missouri for which we have data are causing groundwater contamination...This is a statewide issue," Lipeles said.

Lipeles is specifically referencing coal ash ponds, engineered ponds used for the disposal of coal ash waste, in her statement. Lipeles was responding to an effort by the Missouri legislature to shift oversight of coal ash disposal from the federal level to the state level.

According to the Energy Information Administration, coal fueled 81 percent of Missouri's electricity generation in 2017, and more coal is consumed for electricity generation in Missouri than in all but two other states. Coal ash is the resulting waste when coal is burned for electricity. Currently, there are 16 coal-fired power plants and 41 coal ash ponds in Missouri, according to a 2019 Washington University Law report.

Lipeles’ statement may have you second-guessing yourself anytime you reach for your kitchen faucet. We checked Lipeles’ claim to see if it, in fact, holds water.

Getting to the data

We reached out to Lipeles to understand the data on which her statement was founded on.

Lieples directed us to the utilities’ 2017 annual groundwater monitoring reports to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from January 2018. The utilities are required by the EPA to report groundwater monitoring data each year. The EPA first required the reports beginning in 2017.

The 2018 reports were recently added, but Lipeles told us she has not reviewed the latest reports.

The EPA also required that plants share their coal combustion residuals, as required by the Disposal of Coal Combustion Residuals Rule of 2015. The EPA’s list was last updated on May 15, 2018.

Upon examination of the reports posted on EPA’s list, we found that every groundwater monitoring report posted for every utility company did appear to show the presence of at least one contaminant. The reports often emphasize corrective action plans and also try to prove that an extraneous source could be causing the groundwater contamination.

We reached out to Patricia Schuba, president of the Labadie Environmental Organization and a trained biologist, for a second opinion on Lipeles’ claim.

"It's a truthful statement that every [plant] that has to report under the coal ash rule for Missouri shows contamination," Schuba said. "I think there's only a few that there's one contaminant, but arsenic stands out as the primary contaminant that's showing up in Missouri testing as well as molybdenum."

Schuba also stressed the risk of groundwater contamination beyond drinking water.

"There's this big concern that we don't realize that this stuff is so dangerous and we're putting it in a water environment where it can become soluble and move into plants, animals, can bioaccumulate in the rivers," Schuba said. "It is contaminating a huge economic resource for the state, and I think the risk of that is totally underappreciated."

Abel Russ, a senior attorney for the Environmental Integrity Project, also agreed with Lipeles’ claim. Having formerly worked in the field of human health risk assessment as a research associate and toxicologist, Russ provided us with an 80-page report that included evaluations for groundwater contaminant present at every power plant in Missouri that provided groundwater monitoring data in March 2018 according to the Disposal of Coal Combustion Residuals Rule of 2015.

"We were trying to determine whether each location had unsafe levels of groundwater contamination that could be attributed to regulated coal ash ponds or landfills," Russ said via email. "Specifically, we counted a pollutant as being present at unsafe levels if (a) it exceeded health-based standards, and (b) the levels in downgradient wells were equal to or greater than the levels in upgradient wells."

According to the report, the only plant in Missouri that didn’t clearly appear to be causing groundwater contamination was the Sikeston power plant.

"For Sikeston, however, I should note that there are elevated levels of coal ash indicator pollutants like boron and sulfate in wells downgradient of the ash pond," Russ said. "This tells me that the Sikeston ash pond is leaking. We didn’t flag it in our report because the levels in groundwater, even though they are elevated above background, do not exceed health-based standards."

A final analysis

For final confirmation, we did an online search to find documents that could add support for Lipeles’ claim. After reviewing the 2019 Washington University Law report on coal ash ponds, the data clearly supports her claim that "all the ponds in Missouri for which we have data are causing groundwater contamination."

Sixteen Missouri coal-fired power plants were included in the report, analyzing a total of 41 coal ash ponds. For every plant listed, their respective coal ash ponds showed groundwater samples that exceeded the federal drinking water standards for boron, arsenic and/or sulfate.

The only coal ash ponds included in the report that did not show groundwater contamination were those operated by plants that did not have groundwater monitoring data listed on their CCR compliance website. Those plants include but aren’t limited to Columbia Municipal Power Plant, Missouri City Generating Station and Blue Valley Generating Station.

It should be noted that some plants that haven’t listed groundwater monitoring data on their CCR compliance website have coal ash ponds that have been closed and are currently inactive. However, the closure of a coal ash pond does not always mean that it has been decontaminated.

Our ruling

Lipeles’ said every Missouri coal ash pond for which there is data is causing groundwater contamination.

After analyzing, Washington University’s data and the utility reports listed by the EPA, every coal ash pond in Missouri that has published data is either causing at least one type of chemical contamination for groundwater or showing signs that it has potential to cause contamination in the near future.

Given the data in the context of Lipeles’ claim, we rate her statement True.