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Six Kentucky coal-ash landfills are hazardous, groups say

Kentucky has six coal-ash impoundments of the type that pose the greatest potential risks to human health and the environment from leaks of arsenic and other metals, two environmental groups said Thursday.

The information was in a report that said people in 34 states who live near 210 coal-ash lagoons or landfills with inadequate linings have a higher risk of cancer and other diseases from contaminants in their drinking water.

Twenty-one states have five or more of the high-risk disposal sites near coal-fired power plants.

The groups — the Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice — said a 2002 Environmental Protection Agency document that the agency didn't release until March adds information about toxic releases from these sites to nearby water systems. It also includes data on how some contaminants accumulate in fish and deer and can harm the health of people who hunt and fish.

"They have identified a huge risk to human health and the environment," Lisa Evans, an Earthjustice attorney, said of the EPA.

The environmental groups said people who live near the most problematic disposal sites and get their water from wells have a cancer risk from drinking arsenic-contaminated water 2,000 times higher than the EPA considers acceptable.

The report listed six impoundments in Kentucky of the type that pose the greatest risk — those that accept both fly ash and other coal refuse and that don't have liners under them.

They are in Woodford, Clark, Lawrence, Muhlenberg and McCracken counties.

Representatives of East Kentucky Power and E.ON U.S., which together own four of the six, said their ash impoundments comply with all rules and that the companies are environmentally responsible.

They also questioned the accuracy of the report from the environmental groups.

Nick Comer, spokesman for East Kentucky Power, said the report appeared to include inaccurate information about the utility's ash impoundments at Ford, in Clark County.

And Brian Phillips, spokesman for E.ON, which owns Kentucky Utilities, said the EPA report from which the environmental groups pulled information is a draft document, so the "allegations" about alarmingly high health risks are based on incomplete scientific analysis.

Evans, the Earthjustice attorney, responded that the EPA report has been extensively reviewed and that it corroborates the conclusions of an earlier risk assessment.

The report from the environmental groups said the ash ponds also produced an increased risk of damage to the liver and other organs from exposure to such metals as cadmium, cobalt and lead, and other pollutants.

Although the health information mainly came from an EPA study released in August 2007, the information was largely neglected and was too technical for most people to understand, the groups said.

The report and a chart of the sites "takes the numbers and fleshes them out so the most dangerous units are identified," Evans said.

Evans also said that the actual number of coal ash disposal sites is nearly three times larger. The EPA has long estimated that there are about 600 ponds and landfills storing the material, but its 2007 survey looked at only 210.

Coal-fired power plants annually dispose of an estimated 100 million tons of ash and sludge scrubbed out of their emissions. The EPA has found that the highest health risks are from water contamination from unlined ponds where coal ash and other coal waste products are mixed.

Unlined ponds increased the risk of other problems, such as damage to the liver and other organs, the agency found. The risk also is elevated when the disposal sites are lined only with clay.

Evans said that proper storage requires drying the ash and sealing it in a landfill with a double liner of clay and a synthetic material, plus groundwater monitoring and a collection system for any water and pollutants that leak out. She said the EPA should require this kind of storage and that it should close poorly lined lagoons and landfills and safely secure their contents.

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson has said that making a decision about whether to regulate the ash sites would be a priority for her. The EPA sent questionnaires about the disposal sites to companies and is collecting the information.

The EPA plans to propose coal-ash regulations by December.

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