Editors note: This is the fourth of four stories on coal ash pollution in the Great Lakes region.
By Claire Moore
Particles left behind when coal burns can be just as radioactive as nuclear waste.
Coal byproducts from Muskingum River Power Plant, a now-defunct coal power plant in Ohio, might have contained forms of these radioactive particles. It is one of 10 coal plants in Ohio to contribute pollutants above safe levels to groundwater, according to the Environmental Integrity Project. But what is unique about this plant is the type of pollutants that came from it.
When coal burns at power plants, it produces residual waste, or coal ash, including a fine silicon powder called fly ash. A 2015 Duke University-led study found radioactive contaminants, such as byproducts of uranium and thorium, can be highly concentrated in this ash.
Radioactive particles were detected in groundwater surrounding Muskingum River Power Plant in Beverly, Ohio. The American Electric Power plant closed in May 2015 after a plan to switch plant operations to natural gas fell through. Rising costs and the passing of environmental regulations were listed as the cause of the closure.
A 2019 report from the Environmental Integrity Project found radium, a radioactive element found in coal, had contaminated groundwater above safe levels at four of the ten monitored coal plants in Ohio. A total of 48 sites across the country had radium-contaminated groundwater.
The Environmental Integrity Project says Ohio has 10 sites where coal ash has contaminated the groundwater. Across the sites, 14 different coal ash contaminants including radioactive material are in the groundwater. Data: Environmental Integrity Project.
According to the EPA’s groundwater and drinking water regulations, long-term exposure to radium, gross alpha particles and gross beta particles can cause cancer.
The facility is on the Environmental Protection Agency’s list of potential damage cases. In the duration of its operation, it threatened groundwater and surface water at levels that could harm human health.
American Electric Power sold the plant to Commercial Liability Partners in 2015. Responsibility for the plant and its cleanup lies with the new owner, said Scott Blake, a spokesperson for American Electric Power.
Commercial Liability Partners did not respond to requests for comment, but on its website outlines a cleanup and redevelopment plan that includes closing the coal ash ponds, some by capping, or covering, the coal ash in place.
Eventually, the site will house an industrial park, farm land, recreation facilities and a wildlife preserve.
Most cleanup efforts should be completed by summer of 2019.
Coal ordinarily contains trace amounts of these radioactive elements, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Burning coal can concentrate these radioactive elements in the ash that’s left behind. Those particles, along with better-known contaminants like arsenic, lead and selenium, can seep into nearby land and water.
If those particles leach into groundwater or surrounding lakes and streams, they could harm nearby people, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Exposure to high levels of arsenic can cause cancer and death, and even low levels can cause nausea, vomiting and irregular heartbeats.
Power plants typically dispose of coal ash in landfills or holding ponds. The plant owners are required to keep an eye on local groundwater near those areas. If the containers leak and contamination is found, managers are required to take action to keep those toxic substances under a safe level.
Despite the potential for harm, some environmental groups say they are focused on other issues.
Sandy Bihn, executive director of the Lake Erie Waterkeeper, said she was not aware of any leaching, radioactive or not, from coal ash storage into Lake Erie or surrounding lakes and streams.
“Coal ash has not been something we’ve honed in on for the water because we’ve had a huge problem with algae,” Bihn said. “It certainly is a long-term risk, but it’s not something we’re focusing on.”
Bihn said more regulation of coal-fired power plants in Ohio – and especially those located near water – is needed.
Of the ten sites in the Environmental Integrity Project’s 2019 report, nine are in close proximity to a river. Eight are on the Ohio River.
“There are other coal-fired power plants across the southern shores of Lake Erie in Ohio that have coal ash facilities,” Bihn said. “At some point, it would be good to have someone look into all of them and kind of find out the status of what’s being done.”
Ohio Citizen Action, a civic interest organization, agrees that coal ash is a problem but is not something they are addressing now, said Angela Oster, a communications representative. They are vying for renewable energy options – for instance, wind power, not coal – to be considered at the legislative level, according to their website.
Earthjustice, an international nonprofit environmental law organization, said it is monitoring Ohio’s coal ash disposal. Earthjustice was instrumental in pushing the EPA to establish initial coal ash regulatory procedures in 2010, said Jennifer Cassel, an Earthjustice coal ash project attorney.
“EPA had the initial  rule,” Cassel said, referring to Earthjustice’s long history with pressing the EPA for coal ash regulations. Right now Earthjustice is contesting the Trump administration’s loosening of restrictions on coal ash.
Cassel said Earthjustice and the Environmental Integrity Project are fighting rollbacks of coal ash regulations in court. With long-term effects of coal ash pollution and radioactivity unknown, she said keeping coal ash regulations in check under the current administration is important in Ohio and similar areas with coal ash ponds.
This story is part of a series on how coal ash threatens what some have called the sixth Great Lake: the region’s groundwater.
- Day 1: Coal ash contamination common across the Great Lakes
- Day 2: Michigan power plants monitor groundwater for coal ash contaminants
- Day 3: Illinois coal ash a statewide groundwater threat
- Day 4: Coal emissions can concentrate radioactivity