Sherry Leonard has had it. After years of being told there is nothing wrong with her drinking water, Leonard wants someone to explain why she has had three new washing machines rust out within about a year of purchase -- and why the water often looks black coming out of the tap, despite new copper piping throughout her home.
“It got to be so bad that the company told me after the third one that they couldn’t afford to replace them any more, even though I had an extended warranty on each one of them,” Leonard said.
Leonard is part of a growing number of Muscatine residents who believe that the quality of water in their community is being polluted by companies that have open coal storage piles and coal ash ponds located next to their facilities and way too close to water sources in the southeast Iowa city.
Leonard says that she wants to sell her home in the south end of Muscatine, but frets that water problems could hamper that. “The water company and the DNR tell me there is nothing wrong with the water,” she said. “But it is absolutely horrid. There are times when it looks black when it comes out of the faucet. But still everyone says that the water meets all of the drinking water standards.”
Leonard also is a member of Muscatine-based citizens group known as Clean Air Muscatine (CLAM). In a few short months, CLAM has taken to court one major industrial company – Grain Processing Corp. (GPC), a corn processing company – and asked Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) officials to require Mid-American Energy to cover its coal pile at its Louisa Station near Muscatine.
Jessica Brackett, executive director for the group, said that the initial concern was the air pollution from several factories, including GPC, but that it didn’t take long for their interests to include water quality issues.
“The fact is Muscatine has the worst violators of air and water regulations in the state,” she said. “There was no way we could work against one set of violations and not another.”
Topping the list of concerns related to water are open coal storage areas as well as how coal ash ponds impact groundwater.
Iowa is home to 72 coal plants. There are 18 that generate more than 50 megawatts of power, and each appears to store coal in the open, where rain and snow fall on the pile and, residents worry, pick up heavy metals before finally leaching into the ground or running off into nearby drains and waterways.
“We are concerned about the impact of the coal pile on surface and ground water,” said a letter submitted by CLAM to the Iowa DNR in February. “The surface runoff could contaminate groundwater and the alluvial aquifer and could also impact the Mississippi River.”
The CLAM letter asked Iowa DNR officials to further assess the impact of coal storage areas operated at Mid-American’s nearby Louisa Station. Among other things, the letter suggests potential actions, such as covering the coal pile, improving the regulation of coal ash at the facility and conducting further analysis to determine if various heavy metal pollutants, such as aluminum, arsenic and mercury, are entering the Mississippi River.
“We’ve got an environmental ghetto along the Mississippi River with coal piles and coal ash ponds,” Brackett said. “We need to have a much better understanding of what may be getting into the Mississippi.”
“The Mississippi River immediately downstream of the MidAmerican-Louisa discharge point is impaired for aluminum, arsenic and mercury,” the letter said. “We believe the IDNR should conduct additional analysis on these pollutants to determine what quantities of these compounds are emitted by the MidAmerican-Louisa facility.”
Heavy metals like mercury and aluminum are neurotoxins that, in moderate to large quantities, can accumulate in and cause damage to the kidneys, liver, bones and brain.
A 2009 report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency raised questions about coal pile runoff as part of an overview of the steam electric power generation industry. The report confirmed that coal pile runoff generated by rainfall or melting snow “can dissolve inorganic salts or cause chemical reactions in the coal piles, which will be carried away in the runoff.”
“Coal pile runoff is typically acidic due to the oxidation of iron sulfide, which produces sulfuric acid, and ferric hydroxide or ferric sulfate. Coal pile runoff may contain high concentrations of copper, iron, aluminum, nickel, and other constituents present in coal,” the report says.
The report also says that quantity of the runoff will depend not only on the amount of precipitation, but also the physical location and layoff of the pile and extent to which water infiltrates the ground underneath the pile.
Iowa DNR officials recently extended its general permitting of storm water discharge associated with industrial activity for another five years, beginning Oct. 1. Most of the regulations governing storm water discharge from industrial activities, including those applying to open coal pile storage, will remain largely unchanged.
Under that Clean Water Act permitting, coal-powered electrical generation plants with open coal piles are required to follow standards similar to those required of asphalt plants, concrete plants, and construction and gravel facilities.
Environmental advocates contend that there should be a review of whether those sites – the coal piles – should be subjected to stricter scrutiny because of the potential impact coal runoff can have on groundwater and surface water.
They contend that Iowa’s permitting procedures make it difficult for members of the public to understand fully or assess the potential pollution footprint of any individual coal plant in the state. That happens, they say, because Iowa issues separate permits to individual coal plants for groundwater, storm water and wastewater impacts.
For residents of Muscatine, the lack of regulation and testing has been an eye-opening lesson.
It certainly was for Bonnie Adkins, another CLAM member, who has had long-time concerns about Muscatine air quality, but thought there wasn’t much wrong with the water.
“I thought for a very long time that our water was as good as any,” Adkins said. “But then I learned that what goes up does come down.”