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PSR Releases New Report on Hexavalent Chromium in Coal Ash

February 9, 2011

In a just-released report, PSR and two environmental organizations have revealed that most of the chromium that leaches from coal ash into ground and surface water takes the form of highly carcinogenic hexavalent chromium.  Long known to cause lung cancer when inhaled, hexavalent chromium has been shown to cause stomach cancer in humans, and intestinal and oral cancers in laboratory animals, when ingested in water. 

Almost all of the chromium that leaches from coal ash into ground water and surface water -- 97 to 100 percent -- is hexavalent. 

This highly health-significant fact is highlighted in EPA’s Blind Spot: Hexavalent Chromium in Coal Ash, a new report by Earthjustice with co-authorship by PSR’s Barb Gottlieb and multiple authors from Environmental Integrity Project. 

Hexavalent chromium has been much in the news recently.  In December a report by the Environmental Working Group documented that tapwater in 31 of 35 American cities studied contained hexavalent chromium. 

Days later, the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, after completing a multi-year, peer-reviewed examination of hexavalent chromium, released a ground-breaking proposal:  a public health goal for hexavalent chromium in drinking water that is 5,000 times lower than the federal government’s drinking water standard for total chromium. 

The lower threshold was deemed necessary to take into account the sensitivity to carcinogens of children and infants. 

In January, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued new guidelines recommending that public water utilities nationwide test drinking water for hexavalent chromium.

The EPA has not, however, been equally vigilant in responding to the threat from coal ash.  The prevalence of hexavalent chromium in coal ash leachate was published by the EPA in 2009, and by the Department of Energy and the industry-related Electric Power Research Institute in 2006, but remained “hidden in plain view” in lengthy reports. 

And when the EPA prepared documents for its proposed rulemaking on coal ash, it discussed hexavalent chromium as a carcinogen by inhalation only. It did not mention the cancer risks from chromium-VI ingested in water – an omission that distorts the calculations of risks to human health and the environment that the EPA must provide in assessing coal combustion wastes.

Hundreds of leaching or leaking, unlined coal ash dumps are situated near water supplies, making it urgently necessary for the EPA to develop the strongest possible regulations for coal ash disposal. PSR has urged the EPA to adopt “Subtitle C” regulations in order to provide uniform, nationwide protection from coal ash for American communities.

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