coal ash spill
A coal ash spill in Kingston, Tennessee in 2008 came from the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston Fossil Plant and covered 300 acres, destroying homes, poisoning rivers and contaminating residential drinking water. Photo courtesy of TVA.

The Greater Pittsburgh area has worked aggressively to restore and improve areas affected by pollution caused by power plants and steel mills. However, remnants of the past continue to plague the region.

A report published by the environmental law advocacy groups Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice in early November says a former coal-fired power plant located northwest of Pittsburgh is poisoning surrounding groundwater with leaking coal ash. 

The report, Poisonous Coverup: The Widespread Failure of the Power Industry to Clean Up Coal Ash Dumps, says GenOn’s New Castle Generating Plant is the sixth worst contaminated coal ash site in the country.

Researchers found that groundwater near GenOn’s plant contained arsenic levels 372 times higher than the U.S. EPA’s safety threshold and lithium levels 54 times higher. Arsenic exposure is linked to multiple forms of cancer, and lithium exposure is connected to kidney and neurological damage, decreased thyroid function and congenital disabilities.

“In addition to the Ohio River being an important source of drinking water to many Americans, people in the region also love to fish, swim and boat out in these waters,” Zach Barber, a community organizer for PennEnvironment, told Environmental Health News. “This pollution poses real risks that are not being taken seriously by these companies or our regulators.”

The report also notes that the majority of coal plants are located near communities primarily made up of low-income residents with people of color, and that 70% of coal ash ponds that are dangerously close to groundwater are located in communities that are mostly Black or brown.

The report was published by the environmental law advocacy groups Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice.

GenOn accepts responsibility for only a small part of the 80-year-old, 120-acre ash pond, according to the report. GenOn argues it shouldn’t be accountable for cleanup because the sites were already polluted before they arrived. Coal hasn’t been burned there since 2016 when the power plant was converted to use natural gas.

Coal ash disposal wasn’t regulated at the federal level until 2015, when the Coal Ash Rule added regulations to prevent groundwater contamination, stop leakage from coal ash ponds and restore groundwater quality. Pennsylvania has its own regulations concerning coal ash.

While the New Castle plant is in the top 10 list, it was previously considered the fifth most contaminated coal ash site in the country in 2019.

Jason Phox

Jason Phox is a journalist in the Pittsburgh area sharing important information with the people of the Steel City. He enjoys writing, photography, and mostly comic books.