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Toxic Waters: Regulatory Absence Allows Chemical, Coal and Farm Industries to Pollute US Water Supplies

No federal regulations specifically govern the disposal of power plant discharges into waterways or landfills.

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Now, Lisa Jackson, who’s the new head of the EPA under President Obama, has said that by the end of this year she will issue new rules on water pollution from power plants and that she’s going to make a determination whether the waste that comes out of power plants should be considered hazardous waste. If it’s considered hazardous waste, a whole new set of rules will be applied to it. But as for right now, there’s no special rules for power plants.

AMY GOODMAN: You write that only one in forty-three power plants across the nation must limit how much barium that they dump into nearby waterways -- talk about the significance of barium -- and that 90 percent of hundreds of coal-fired power plants have violated the Clean Water Act and were not fined or otherwise sanctioned. But start with the barium.

CHARLES DUHIGG: That’s exactly right. Barium is a chemical. The waste from power plants is essentially what is left over when you burn coal. And as we all know, coal is a relatively dirty mineral. It’s very dense. When you burn it, a lot of bad stuff comes off, a lot of minerals -- barium, arsenic, other minerals. Barium is one that the government has said causes health problems. It can affect your organs. It can cause skin rashes and other problems. Arsenic is another mineral that we see a lot in the byproduct, the waste from coal. Because the Clean Water Act doesn’t say you must limit certain types of chemicals, a lot of power plants emit barium, arsenic and other things, but there’s no limit in the law on how much they can put out. And so, as a result, they can essentially dump as much as they want into nearby rivers. And power plants are usually by rivers, because they need a lot of water to produce energy.

Now, the point that you raise is that a lot of regulators have tried to use the Clean Water Act to regulate and rein in the pollution, the water pollution, that comes out of power plants. But the Clean Water Act, like any law, is only as good as you enforce it. And what we found by looking at our records -- and we had built this big database -- was that hundreds and hundreds of plants have violated their Clean Water Act permit and have never been punished for it. Or if they have been punished, they’ve been punished to the tune of about, you know, couple thousand dollars or maybe $20,000, when these are firms that bring in billions of dollars in profits.

JUAN GONZALEZ: You mentioned arsenic. And in some cases, you found, in Ohio and North Carolina, that there were releases of arsenic as much as eighteen times above federal limits?

CHARLES DUHIGG: Well, actually, this comes from EPA data. And what they found was that near landfills where power plants have dumped the waste from generating electricity, arsenic has seeped into the groundwater. And you’re exactly right, sometimes the level of arsenic detected in the groundwater was eighteen times higher than the federal limit. They said that for some populations, they were at an exposed cancer risk that was 2,000 times higher than the approved -- than what EPA says we should be exposed to.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s an EPA report itself.

CHARLES DUHIGG: That’s EPA data, right.

AMY GOODMAN: Says that people living near some power plant landfills have a 2,000 times higher rate of cancer?

CHARLES DUHIGG: Risk of cancer.

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