Archive for the ‘Hexavalent Chromium’ Category

Coal Ash: 130 Million Tons of Waste by CBS 60 Minutes

August 15, 2010 8:06 PM
Coal Ash: 130 Million Tons of Waste
By CBSNews
We burn so much coal in this country for electricity that every year that process generates 130 million tons of waste. Most of it is coal ash, and it contains some nasty stuff. Environmental scientists tell us that the concentrations of mercury, arsenic, lead and other toxic metals are considerably higher in coal ash than in ordinary soil.

When coal ash is disposed of in dry, lined impoundments it is said to be safe. But it’s often dumped into wet ponds – there are nearly 500 of them across the country – and in those cases the ash could pose health risks to the nearby communities.

Jim Roewer, one of the top lobbyists for the power industry, told 60 Minutes correspondent Lesley Stahl that nearly half of the electricity in the United States is generated by coal.

“Coal’s gonna be around for a long time,” he said.

“We really can’t get rid of coal,” Stahl remarked.

“We shouldn’t get rid of coal,” Roewer said.

“Well, should or shouldn’t, we can’t. And coal makes waste. Would you say that the industry has done a good job of disposing of the coal ash waste?” Stahl asked.

“We can do better,” Roewer said.

Asked if that means no, Roewer told Stahl, “Well, we had a Kingston spill.”

That’s Kingston, Tenn., where last December a giant retention pool of coal ash buckled under the weight of five decades of waste.

A billion gallons of muck shot into the Emory River like a black tsunami, engulfing homes, uprooting trees, and throwing fish out of the water.

Residents woke up to an apocalyptic moonscape of “ashbergs” everywhere. The spill was 100 times larger than the Exxon Valdez and it was all coal ash.

Stahl had never heard of coal ash before the Kingston incident.

“Wasn’t a problem,” Roewer remarked.

“Well, it was a problem, we just didn’t know,” Stahl replied.

The problem is: where do you put all that stuff? The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) dumped up to 1,000 tons of coal ash every day into a wet pond near the plant, slowly amassing a waste-cake 60 feet high. Some of the ingredients, according to the EPA, were arsenic, lead, mercury, selenium, cadmium and other toxic metals.

“You know, some people say that this is a poisoned meadow,” Stahl said to Leo Francendese, an environmental “Mr. Fix It,” sent by the EPA to clean up this mess.

“In the wrong circumstances coal ash is dangerous. Breathing it, that’s dangerous,” Francendese replied.

The summer heat can bake the ash into a fine talc-like powder that can wreak havoc on your lungs.

So while the government has never formally labeled coal ash a hazardous waste, it’s being treated as such at the Kingston site.

As the 60 Minutes team left the site, they were scrubbed clean, as was their car.

Francendese explained that every vehicle that exits the site must go through the cleaning process.

Gary Topmiller lives right on the river. He had a front row seat when the spill covered his dock.

“Now what the doctors did tell me was, ‘Get out of there.’ And I said, ‘I don’t have any place to go,'” Topmiller told Stahl.

Asked how he lives now and whether he goes out on the water, Topmiller said, “No. We don’t go out of the house.”

From the house, he sees scientists collecting samples to analyze just how bad the water is. The river looks clear, but Topmiller says it’s deceptive.

He shows Stahl a water sample he collected himself in a jar. “Turn it upside down and start shakin’ it. And this is what the river looks like once it – once that stuff gets suspended in it,” Topmiller said. As Stahl shakes the jar gray muck inside clouds the seemingly clear water. “And how they’re gonna get that all out of the river, I don’t have an idea.”

Most of his neighbors have packed up and left. Go down the river and you pass home after home that are deserted, the hubbub of children replaced by the hum of heavy machinery.

Those left behind say the noise is one thing: what really infuriates them is executives from the power plant telling them that coal ash is as safe as dirt.

“We have broken the trust,” Anda Ray said.

Ray oversees environmental policy at the Tennessee Valley Authority, which is responsible for the spill. Stahl asked her how toxic she thinks coal ash is.

“I’d say that the constituents, the things that are in the coal ash, are the same things that are naturally occurring in soil and rock,” Ray replied.

“So, is it like dirt? Would you say that? Would you say that sentence? That stuff is like dirt,” Stahl asked.

“That ash material is higher than dirt in two areas. And that is arsenic and thallium. And we are monitoring those and the effect on the water,” Ray said.

Asked if she would swim in the river now, Ray told Stahl, “Yes, I would.”

She later retracted, remembering there’s an advisory against it. “We’ve advised people not to swim in the river where there’s ash.”

Stahl then asked about company reports repeatedly questioning the stability of the ash ponds.

“Should the TVA have seen this coming?” Stahl asked. “You were warned repeatedly.”

“Lesley, there were red flags that have been noticed all through the years. And we recognize that those red flags should’ve been addressed. But yes, we missed them, and we don’t ever want to miss them again,” Ray replied.

The spilled ash is now being loaded onto trains and sent off to a dry landfill in Alabama. Right now, coal ash disposal is regulated by the states, some of which have strict rules, some hardly any at all.

The new head of the EPA, Lisa Jackson, is reviewing whether the federal government should get involved by labeling coal ash a “hazardous waste,” which would mean much tighter regulations and oversight.

“Why wouldn’t you right now, this minute, on 60 Minutes, declare that coal ash is a hazardous waste?” Stahl asked.

“EPA, in making a regulatory determination, has to look at a number of factors, including the toxicity of the material and how it’s currently managed, but that’s done according to law. And I have committed that no later than December, we will make a regulatory proposal with respect to this material,” Jackson explained.

The industry opposes calling coal ash a hazardous waste. They’re pushing for another solution: recycling.

Ted Yoakam, a lawyer in Virginia, says recycling can breed its own disaster. He says that in 2002, the state’s power company, Dominion, got rid of some of its excess coal ash by giving it to a golf course in Chesapeake.

“How many tons of coal ash, do you know, did they use to build this golf course?” Stahl asked.

“We know that they put at least 1.5 million tons,” Yoakam said.

In a videotaped city council meeting, a consultant hired by the company that built the golf course assured the mayor that coal ash was safe for reuse.

“In every aspect it’s the same as dirt, as it’s been explained to me. I’m not aware of any negative aspects of it at all,” the consultant explained.

The mayor then turned to a Dominion executive.

Asked if there are any environmental concerns, the executive told the mayor, “No, sir. We at Dominion Power are fully in compliance with all the federal and state regulations.”

Two years later, an internal company study about handling the ash for the golf course recommended that workers use “impervious gloves” and “particulate-filtering respirators” due to “potential health…risks.”

Robyn Pierce and her neighbor Stacy Moorman live across the street from the golf course.

“It was said that they were told respirators and body suits. Nobody came up and down either one of these two streets and handed out wardrobe for us,” Pierce said.

“But our children were out there,” Moorman remarked.

“Our children were out there playing in the yard breathing this stuff. How does this happen?” Pierce asked.

Also, Dominion’s internal risk assessment warned of the dangers of coal ash leaching into the water supply. To prevent that, the contractor who built the golf course was supposed to build a two-foot barrier under the coal ash, and one 18 inches on top.

The contractor’s engineer certified this was done. But attorney Ted Yoakam, who represents townspeople who are suing Dominion, suspects it wasn’t.

“Yes. As you can see right here, it’s right at the surface,” Yoakam said, pointing out to little mounds of coal ash on the surface of the grass. “Insects have pulled it up. You can see how it flies away.”

Last year, the city dug into the golf course, did a test and found elevated levels of toxic metals in the water.

“With all the knowledge that Dominion had about the coal ash and the lead and the arsenic and beryllium and all the poison to put it in this environment, it’s just an outrage,” Yoakam said.

That water test was just for the golf course; Dominion told 60 Minutes EPA testing “shows no harm to residential wells” around the golf course.

In reply to that argument, Stacy Moorman says: “I invite anybody from the companies who have put it over there to come to my house and have dinner. And I will use that tap water.”

Moorman and her neighbors think it’s too risky to drink the water. So, after Dominion refused to provide them with bottled water, they began trudging to a local church, where the city pipes in guaranteed clean water.

Dominion declined to give 60 Minutes an interview, but most power companies rely on recycling because it cuts the 130 million tons of coal waste every year in half. The industry calls recycling “beneficial use.”

“Ugh! Don’t even… The only people it was beneficial for were for those utility companies that had to get that stuff off their hands because they were already in violation with stockpiling too much. That is what ‘beneficial use’ meant,” Robyn Pierce said.

But the EPA in the Bush administration endorsed beneficial use and now coal ash is recycled in dozens of ways: as cement substitute, it’s also placed under roads and in deserted mines and it’s added to products from carpets to bowling balls to bathroom sinks.

While the industry says the uses have been studied, Stahl asked Lisa Jackson whether the EPA knows if some of the recycled products are safe.

“Schoolroom carpeting,” Stahl asked.

“I don’t know. I have no data that says that’s safe at this point,” Jackson replied.

“Kitchen counters,” Stahl asked.

“The same,” Jackson replied.

“Fifty thousand tons of coal ash byproducts have been used in agriculture. What’s being done through EPA to look at the use of coal ash in agricultural products? Anything? Is there a study?” Stahl asked.

“I’m not sure that there’s any study out there right now,” Jackson said.

“How did we get to a place where coal ash is in products without anybody knowing?” Stahl asked.

“We’re here, now, because coal ash at this time isn’t a regulated material by the federal government,” Jackson replied.

If the EPA declares coal ash a hazardous waste, lobbyist Jim Roewer says “beneficial use” would die and the cost of disposal would skyrocket.

“We look at that and we’re looking at something on the order of 12 to 13 billion,” he explained.

“And who’d pay for that?” Stahl asked. “We know. The customers.”

“Environmental protection doesn’t come cheap,” Roewer replied.

He says the current state-by-state regulatory system may not be perfect, but it works.

“Could you say right now that the disposal in all the coal ash plants today are safe, and that they’re all doing a proper job?” Stahl asked.

“All I can guarantee is that they’re going [to] do their best to manage coal ash safely so that you don’t have a release like Kingston,” Roewer replied.

Asked if all these plants are safe, Roewer said, “That’s what the state regulations are all about to insure the safe management of coal ash.”

“But you’re not saying they are safe. You’re playing word games with me. You’re not saying, ‘They are safe,'” Stahl said.

“You want me to guarantee that…they’re absolutely safe,” Roewer asked.

“I think everybody…yes, I do,” Stahl replied.

“Well, what I can say is the state regulations and the utility management practices are put in place to ensure with a goal of safe management of coal ash,” Roewer said.

“I don’t think many people really trust the utility industry, I’m sorry to tell you,” Stahl remarked.

Roewer’s reply? “You’re not the first one to tell me that.”

Produced by Shachar Bar-On


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Cynthia McFadden’s 1996 Report on Town Plagued With Contaminated Water
ABC’s Cynthia McFadden reports on a Calif. town plagued with contaminated water.


The movie “Erin Brockovich” launched an investigation into the Hexavalent Chromium contamination of a town’s water supply in Hinkley, California.

Probable carcinogen hexavalent chromium found in drinking water of 31 U.S. cities

The Washington Post

By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 19, 2010; 12:02 AM

An environmental group that analyzed the drinking water in 35 cities across the United States, including Bethesda and Washington, found that most contained hexavalent chromium, a probable carcinogen that was made famous by the film “Erin Brockovich.”

The study, which will be released Monday by the Environmental Working Group, is the first nationwide analysis of hexavalent chromium in drinking water to be made public.

It comes as the Environmental Protection Agency is considering whether to set a limit for hexavalent chromium in tap water. The agency is reviewing the chemical after the National Toxicology Program, part of the National Institutes of Health, deemed it a “probable carcinogen” in 2008.

The federal government restricts the amount of “total chromium” in drinking water and requires water utilities to test for it, but that includes both trivalent chromium, a mineral that humans need to metabolize glucose, and hexavalent chromium, the metal that has caused cancer in laboratory animals.

Last year, California took the first step in limiting the amount of hexavalent chromium in drinking water by proposing a “public health goal” for safe levels of 0.06 parts per billion. If California does set a limit, it would be the first in the nation.

Hexavalent chromium was a commonly used industrial chemical until the early 1990s. It is still used in some industries, such as in chrome plating and the manufacturing of plastics and dyes. The chemical can also leach into groundwater from natural ores.

The new study found hexavalent chromium in the tap water of 31 out of 35 cities sampled. Of those, 25 had levels that exceeded the goal proposed in California.

The highest levels were found in Norman, Okla., where the water contained more than 200 times the California goal. Locally, Bethesda and Washington each had levels of 0.19 parts per billion, more than three times the California goal.

The cities were selected to be a mix of big and smaller communities and included places where local water companies had already detected high levels of “total chromium.”

“This chemical has been so widely used by so many industries across the U.S. that this doesn’t surprise me,” said Erin Brockovich, whose fight on behalf of the residents of Hinkley, Calif., against Pacific Gas & Electric became the subject of a 2000 film. In that case, PG&E was accused of leaking hexavalent chromium into the town’s groundwater for more than 30 years. The company paid $333 million in damages to more than 600 townspeople and pledged to clean up the contamination.

“Our municipal water supplies are in danger all over the U.S.,” Brockovich said. “This is a chemical that should be regulated.”

Max Costa, who chairs the department of environmental medicine at New York University’s School of Medicine and is an expert in hexavalent chromium, called the new findings “disturbing.”

“At this point, we should strive to not have any hexavalent chromium in drinking water” or at least limit the amounts to the level proposed by California, Costa wrote in an e-mail.

Hexavalent chromium has long been known to cause lung cancer when inhaled, but scientists only recently found evidence that it causes cancer in laboratory animals when ingested. It has been linked in animals to liver and kidney damage as well as leukemia, stomach cancer and other cancers.

The American Chemistry Council, which represents the chemical industry, says the California goal is unrealistic because some water supplies have naturally occurring hexavalent chromium that is higher than .06 parts per billion.

In a written statement, the group’s senior director, Ann Mason, said that “even the most sophisticated analytical methods used by EPA are not able to detect the extremely low levels that California wants to establish.”

The group supports a “uniform, national standard for hexavalent chromium in drinking water, based on sound science,” Mason wrote. “Research is underway to provide EPA with critical data that will allow for a more informed risk assessment of hexavalent chromium. This data will be complete by mid-2011. Given the potential impact on drinking water supplies, EPA should incorporate this data in its assessment.”

Brendan Gilfillan, an EPA spokesman, said that the agency was aware of the new study by the Environmental Working Group and that the findings will be considered as the agency reviews total chromium in drinking water, work that is expected to be completed next year.

Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, said that water utilities across the country are resistant to the regulation.

“It’s not their fault. They didn’t cause the contamination. But if a limit is set, it’s going to be extraordinarily expensive for them to clean this up,” Cook said. “The problem in all of this is that we lose sight of the water drinkers, of the people at the end of the tap. There is tremendous push-back from polluters and from water utilities. The real focus has to be on public health.”

Chromium-6 Is Widespread in US Tap Water
Cancer-causing chemical found in 89 percent of cities sampled

The Environmental Working Group

Laboratory tests commissioned by Environmental Working Group have detected hexavalent chromium, the carcinogenic “Erin Brockovich chemical,” in tap water from 31 of 35 American cities. The highest levels were in Norman, Okla.; Honolulu, Hawaii; and Riverside, Calif. In all, water samples from 25 cities contained the toxic metal at concentrations above the safe maximum recently proposed by California regulators.

The National Toxicology Program has concluded that hexavalent chromium (also called chromium-6) in drinking water shows “clear evidence of carcinogenic activity” in laboratory animals, increasing the risk of gastrointestinal tumors. In September 2010, a draft toxicological review by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) similarly found that hexavalent chromium in tap water is “likely to be carcinogenic to humans.”

In 2009, California officials proposed setting a “public health goal” for hexavalent chromium in drinking water of 0.06 parts per billion (ppb) to reduce cancer risk. This was the first step toward establishing a statewide enforceable limit. Despite mounting evidence of its toxic effects, the EPA has not set a legal limit for hexavalent chromium in tap water nationally and does not require water utilities to test for it. In 25 cities where EWG’s testing detected chromium-6 — in the first publicly available national survey for the contaminant — it was found in concentrations exceeding California’s proposed maximum, in one case at a level more than 200 times higher.

At least 74 million Americans in 42 states drink chromium-polluted tap water, much of it likely in the cancer-causing hexavalent form. Given the scope of exposure and the magnitude of the potential risk, EWG believes the EPA should move expeditiously to establish a legal limit for chromium-6 and require public water suppliers to test for it.

Executive Summary

Tap water from 31 of 35 U.S. cities tested contains hexavalent chromium (or chromium-6), the carcinogenic “Erin Brockovich chemical,” according to laboratory tests commissioned by Environmental Working Group (EWG). The highest levels were detected in Norman, Okla.; Honolulu, Hawaii; and Riverside, Calif.

Despite mounting evidence of the contaminant’s toxic effects, including a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) draft toxicological review that classifies it as “likely to be carcinogenic to humans” when consumed in drinking water, the agency has not set a legal limit for chromium-6 in tap water and does not require water utilities to test for it. Hexavalent chromium is commonly discharged from steel and pulp mills as well as metal-plating and leather-tanning facilities. It can also pollute water through erosion of soil and rock.

The National Toxicology Program has found that hexavalent chromium in drinking water shows clear evidence of carcinogenic activity in laboratory animals, increasing the risk of otherwise rare gastrointestinal tumors (NTP 2007, 2008). In response to this study and others, California officials last year proposed setting a public health goal for chromium-6 in drinking water of 0.06 parts per billion (ppb). This is the first step toward establishing a statewide enforceable limit (OEHHA 2009).

Levels of the carcinogen in 25 cities tested by EWG were higher than California’s proposed public health goal. Tap water from Norman, Okla. (population 90,000) contained more than 200 times California’s proposed safe limit.

Millions of Americans drink chromium-contaminated water

EWG’s investigation is the broadest publicly available survey of hexavalent chromium to date. The 31 cities with chromium-polluted tap water draw from utilities that collectively serve more than 26 million people. In California, the only state that requires testing for hexavalent chromium, water utilities have detected the compound in tap water supplied to more than 31 million people, according to an EWG analysis of data from the state water agency (EWG 2009).


City City Population Hexavalent Chromium Contamination Level in Tap Water
Norman, Oklahoma 89,952 12.9 ppb
Honolulu, Hawaii 661,004 2.00 ppb
Riverside, California 280,832 1.69 ppb
Madison, Wisconsin 200,814 1.58 ppb
San Jose, California 979,000 1.34 ppb

EWG’s tests provide a one-time snapshot of chromium-6 levels in 35 cities. But chromium pollution is a continuous, ongoing problem, as shown by the annual water quality reports that utilities must produce under federal law. Over the years, nearly all of the 35 cities tested by EWG regularly report finding chromium (in the form of total chromium) in their water despite using far less sensitive testing methods than those used by EWG.

The total number of Americans drinking tap water contaminated with this compound is likely far higher than is indicated by EWG’s tests. At least 74 million people in nearly 7,000 communities drink tap water polluted with “total chromium,” which includes hexavalent and other forms of the metal, according to EWG’s 2009 analysis of water utility tests from 48,000 communities in 42 states (EWG 2009).

The EPA has set a legal limit in tap water for total chromium of 100 ppb to protect against “allergic dermatitis” (skin irritation or reactions). Measures of total chromium include the essential mineral trivalent chromium, which regulates glucose metabolism, as well as the cancer-causing hexavalent form. Preliminary EWG-commissioned water tests found that in most cases, the majority of the total chromium in water was in the hexavalent form, yet the EPA’s legal limit for total chromium is 1,700 times higher than California’s proposed public health goal for hexavalent chromium. This disparity could indicate significant cancer risk for communities drinking chromium-tainted tap water.

The EPA’s new analysis of hexavalent chromium toxicity, released in draft form in September 2010 (EPA 2010a), cites significant cancer concerns linked to exposure to the contaminant in drinking water. It highlights health effects documented in animal studies, including anemia and damage to the gastrointestinal tract, lymph nodes and liver.

Industry deception delayed protections

The plight of the cancer-stricken residents of Hinkley, Calif., who in 1996 won a $333 million settlement from Pacific Gas and Electric Co. for contaminating their tap water with hexavalent chromium, was the basis of the 2000 movie “Erin Brockovich,” starring Julia Roberts.

Subsequently, a 2005 Wall Street Journal investigation and a separate EWG report based on court documents and depositions from a similar lawsuit in Kettleman City, Calif. revealed that PG&E had hired consultants to publish a fraudulent analysis of cancer mortality in Chinese villagers exposed to hexavalent chromium, in an attempt to disprove the link between the chemical and cancer. The study was published in the respected Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, and scientists and regulators — including the EPA — cited the fraudulent article in research and safety assessments. The journal retracted the paper in 2006 in response to EWG’s request for corrective action.
California officials then conducted a rigorous re-assessment of the study data, finding a statistically significant increase in stomach cancer among the exposed. Their analysis is consistent with laboratory evidence from the National Toxicology Program and others showing that hexavalent chromium in tap water causes gastrointestinal tumors in multiple species.

Industry has sought for more than six years to delay state-mandated regulation of hexavalent chromium in tap water in California. Aerospace giant Honeywell International Inc. and others have stalled the adoption of the advisory public health goal by pressing for additional external scientific peer review. California’s Department of Public Health can neither set nor enforce a mandatory tap water standard for hexavalent chromium until the goal is finalized.


At least 74 million Americans in 42 states drink chromium-polluted tap water, much of it likely in the form of cancer-causing hexavalent chromium. Given the scope of exposure and the magnitude of the potential risk, the EPA should move expeditiously to establish a legal limit for the chemical in tap water and require water utilities to test for it.

The state of California must establish a strong standard for hexavalent chromium in tap water immediately. A truly health-protective hexavalent chromium regulation will reduce the cancer risk for Californians and serve as a model for the nation. With an enforceable standard already six years past the statutory deadline and the health of millions of Californians at stake, the state cannot move too quickly.

To access the report with maps see the link below


Industry falsified key study of “Erin Brockovich chemical”

Chromium is a naturally occurring metal used in steel manufacturing, leather tanning, welding and the production of dyes, pigments and alloys. It is often used to plate metal surfaces and is a major component of pesticides used in pressure-treated lumber for outdoor decks, play sets and other structures (one form was banned in 2005). Chromium was also widely used as an anti-corrosive agent in industrial cooling towers until the federal government banned the practice in 1990 (EPA 2000). It is an essential component in making stainless steel, its most common use, and super-alloys (USGS 2010).

The toxic form of chromium is not regulated in tap water

Chromium has multiple forms, and the two most common have dramatically different consequences for human health. Trivalent chromium (chromium-3) is a nutrient essential to sugar and lipid metabolism, but hexavalent chromium (chromium-6) is a dangerous toxin. Since 1990, international health authorities have identified it as a known human carcinogen when inhaled (IARC 1990), and a growing body of evidence has linked hexavalent chromium in drinking water to stomach and gastrointestinal cancers.

In 1992, the EPA set the legal limit in tap water for total chromium — a mixture of hexavalent and trivalent chromium — at 100 ppb to protect against skin reactions known as “allergic dermatitis” (EPA 2010b). However, a safety standard that lumps levels of a toxic carcinogen with a nutrient necessary for health is like grouping arsenic and vitamin C.

Recent California Department of Public Health tests of drinking water detected hexavalent chromium in 2,208 of more than 7,000 water sources (CDPH 2009). A review of EWG’s tap water quality database indicates that more than 74 million Americans may be exposed to total chromium through tap water, and more than 13.7 million Californians may be exposed to hexavalent chromium (EWG 2009).

New evidence overturns claims that chromium-6 is harmless

Various conditions can cause trivalent chromium to change to hexavalent chromium and vice versa. The widely used tap water disinfectant chlorine, for instance, can cause trivalent to become hexavalent (Lai 2006). Highly acidic conditions can cause hexavalent to become trivalent. For years, scientists assumed that all hexavalent chromium was converted to trivalent by the stomach’s acidic environment, rendering it harmless.

It is now clear, however, that some of this toxic chemical can pass through the stomach unchanged and penetrate tissues and organs throughout the body (Costa 1997). Studies in both animals and people show that exposure to hexavalent chromium via drinking water leads to elevated chromium levels in tissues, particularly the gastrointestinal tract, blood, liver, kidneys and spleen, and in increased toxicity (Kerger 1996; Finley 1997; Anderson 2002; NTP 2008; EPA 2010a).

Industry deceit covered up cancer connection

Research on the effects of chromium-6 in drinking water has focused on increased cancer risk. More than 20 years ago, researchers found an increased risk of stomach cancer and a “significant excess of overall cancer mortality” among villagers in China’s Liaoning Province whose drinking water had been polluted by a chromium ore processing facility (Zhang 1987).

This research should have triggered a flurry of scientific and regulatory scrutiny, but the study was published in a Chinese-language medical journal, making it largely inaccessible to U.S. researchers and regulators. Ten years later, in April 1997, the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (JOEM) published a paper, purportedly by the same Chinese research team, that reversed the earlier conclusion. It said that the data from Liaoning Province “do not indicate an association of cancer mortality with exposure to [hexavalent chromium]-contaminated groundwater” (Zhang 1997).

Investigations by EWG and the Wall Street Journal (EWG 2005) revealed that ChemRisk, a consulting firm hired by Pacific Gas & Electric Co. (PG&E) to fight the Erin Brockovich lawsuit over contamination in Hinkley, Calif., had distorted data from the Chinese study and placed the falsified paper in a respected scientific journal in order to reverse the original conclusion linking hexavalent chromium to stomach cancer.

Exposé outed corrupt consultant

EWG’s review of documents and depositions from a Kettleman City, Calif. lawsuit against PG&E revealed that ChemRisk’s employees — with the knowledge of PG&E’s attorneys — had conducted their own analysis of the original Chinese data in 1995-97, deliberately excluding reports of cancer cases in the province that pointed to an association with hexavalent chromium. They then wrote and submitted their paper for publication without disclosing that they worked for ChemRisk or that PG&E had paid for the new “study.”

Kettleman City, like Hinkley, is home to a PG&E station that pumps natural gas from a Texas pipeline to California customers. Both facilities used hexavalent chromium to cool the natural gas and then dumped it into unlined ponds that allowed the contaminant to leach into groundwater.

In the Brockovich lawsuit, residents of Hinkley sued PG&E for polluting their tap water with hexavalent chromium — the basis for the Julia Roberts film released in 2000. PG&E paid $333 million to settle the Hinkley case before the falsified paper was published, but scientists and regulators — including the EPA — subsequently cited the paper in research and safety assessments. In response to EWG’s request for corrective action (EWG 2006), the journal retracted the paper in 2006, citing in particular the fact that “financial and intellectual input to the paper by outside parties was not disclosed” (Brandt-Rauf 2006). Also in 2006, PG&E settled with the Kettleman City victims of chromium-6 contamination for $335 million.

As part of its toxicological review, the California Environmental Protection Agency’s (California EPA) Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA), charged with setting a public health goal for the contaminant in tap water, conducted a rigorous re-analysis of the Chinese data. That work once again demonstrated a statistically significant increase in stomach cancer among the hexavalent chromium-exposed villagers compared to Liaoning Province’s overall population (Beaumont 2008).

Laboratory studies bolster cancer link

Animal studies have provided additional evidence linking hexavalent chromium to cancer. A study by federal toxicologists on rats and mice revealed statistically significant, dose-related increases in tumors of the duodenum and small intestine in mice, and statistically significant increases in tumors of the oral cavity in rats (NTP 2008). Based on these data, the National Toxicology Program’s (NTP) Board of Scientific Counselors concluded that hexavalent chromium in drinking water shows clear evidence of carcinogenic activity (NTP 2007).

These results agree with those of an earlier study that was marred by a number of limitations, including the outbreak of a viral infection in the mice under study (Borneff 1968). Nevertheless, a thorough statistical analysis of these data that accounted for the limitations still found a significant increase in stomach tumors (OEHHA 2009).

The NTP findings led the US EPA to list hexavalent chromium as a priority for evaluation under its Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS), which last reviewed the health concerns associated with this contaminant in 1998. In September 2010, the agency released a draft toxicological review, concluding that chromium-6 in drinking water is “likely to be carcinogenic to humans” (EPA 2010a). Unfortunately, the EPA has also cited its ongoing investigation as a reason to delay adopting a more health-protective federal limit for chromium in tap water (EPA 2009).

In contrast, California has moved ahead. California EPA scientists drew a clear conclusion: “The findings of available human, animal, genotoxic, and toxicokinetic studies all indicate that hexavalent chromium is a possible human carcinogen by the oral route” (OEHHA 2009). Dr. R. Gwiazda, a reviewer of the draft public health goal for chromium-6 in tap water, summed it up best: “Overall, the document convincingly demonstrates that indeed there is a relationship between exposure to [hexavalent chromium] via the oral route and the development of cancer in the gastrointestinal tract” (Gwiazda 2008).

Some people are especially vulnerable

Some individuals may be especially susceptible to the carcinogenic effects of chromium-6. Specifically, people with less acidic stomachs appear to have limited ability to convert hexavalent chromium to trivalent chromium, exposing them to higher levels of the toxic form and putting them at greater risk.

A low-acid stomach can be caused by several widely used medications, such as antacids and proton pump inhibitors used to treat common disorders including gastroesophageal reflux disease, peptic ulcer disease and chronic gastritis. Other conditions that can inhibit stomach acid production include pernicious anemia, pancreatic tumors, infection with Helicobacter pylori (a common bacterium linked to ulcers), mucolipidosis type IV and some autoimmune diseases. People with pernicious anemia have also been found to absorb hexavalent chromium more readily (Donaldson 1966).

Fetuses, infants and children also have higher sensitivity to carcinogenic chemicals. According to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), children’s developing organ systems are more vulnerable to damage from chemical exposures, and children are less able than adults to detoxify and excrete chemicals (NAS 1993). A recent evaluation by US EPA scientists in response to the agency’s 2005 revised Cancer Guidelines noted that hexavalent chromium causes germ cell mutations and DNA deletions in developing embryos, indicating a need for age-dependent adjustment factors for risk assessments to account for the toxin’s increased damage in developing bodies (McCarroll 2010).

Chronic exposure to hexavalent chromium in tap water is likely to raise everyone’s risk of cancer, but the young and the medically impaired may be especially vulnerable. These susceptible subpopulations deserve special protections.

EPA slow to set drinking water limits for chromium-6

Despite growing recognition of hexavalent chromium’s carcinogenic potential, including EPA’s draft designation of it as a likely human carcinogen, the agency has taken no action to limit levels of this toxic compound in drinking water. The agency has left in place an inadequate standard for total chromium, set nearly 20 years ago, that does not distinguish between toxic hexavalent and nutritionally essential trivalent chromium and cites “allergic dermatitis” as the only relevant health concern.

The EPA has reviewed its standard for total chromium twice since setting it in 1992. In 2003, the agency determined that even though new research on chromium-6 indicated cause for concern, information gaps prevented establishment of a more protective standard (EPA 2003). Six years later, the EPA again delayed action on a stricter standard, this time because it had initiated an evaluation of hexavalent chromium via its Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) (EPA 2009). The draft toxicological review released in September as part of this process identified exposure to hexavalent chromium in drinking water as likely to cause cancer to humans, and cited animal studies linking it to a variety of other health effects, including anemia and damage to the gastrointestinal tract, lymph nodes and liver (EPA 2010a).

Drinking water standards are drastically out-of-date

The EPA’s inaction is but one example of the agency’s lack of resolve in protecting Americans’ tap water. The agency has not set a new, enforceable drinking water standard for any contaminant since 2001, even though the Safe Drinking Water Act requires the EPA to assess the need for standards for at least five new chemicals every five years. Three-fourths of the current standards, including for total chromium, were set in 1991 and 1992 and have not been updated since.
Since 1996, the EPA has reviewed data on toxicity and water pollution for 138 chemicals, but in every case it declined to set a safety standard. EWG’s analysis of its tap water quality database showed that collectively these chemicals pollute drinking water used by more than 111 million Americans (EWG 2009).

The framework under which the EPA sets drinking water standards is outdated. For example, the agency is not required to set maximum legal limits for contaminants at levels that protect the health of children or to consider the heightened vulnerability of the fetus and newborns (Donohue 2002).

In addition, the EPA sets maximum legal limits for contaminants as if people are exposed to just one at a time. That’s not the reality — research shows that people carry hundreds of chemicals in their bodies at any given time. A growing number of studies also show that the risks add up when people are exposed to multiple chemicals that can act in tandem to cause harm — and that total risk can be greater than the sum of the parts (NRC 2008).

At long last, signs of progress

For the 114 contaminants that the EPA does regulate, EWG’s drinking water quality analysis found that water suppliers achieved 92 percent compliance with mandatory health standards, demonstrating that utilities can and do meet enforceable limits when they exist (EWG 2009). However, the EPA’s failure to develop meaningful standards for hexavalent chromium and scores of other contaminants leaves the public at risk.

Recently the federal government has begun to focus a critical eye on hexavalent chromium and other water contaminants. When EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson took office, she announced that protecting America’s drinking water would be one of seven agency priorities. In keeping with this goal, the EPA has announced plans to set a legal limit for perchlorate in tap water, which would make it the first new chemical to be regulated in drinking water in a decade. Meanwhile, the Toxic Chemicals Safety Act (H.R. 5820), introduced in the House of Representatives this summer, specifically lists hexavalent chromium as a priority chemical for safety evaluation.

EWG recommends that the EPA set a legal limit for hexavalent chromium in drinking water as quickly as possible and require all water utilities to test for it. The EPA can speed the process by streamlining the IRIS assessment. We hope that Administrator Jackson’s leadership on this critical issue will reduce cancer risk for all Americans.

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EPA’s Blind Spot: Hexavalent Chromium in Coal Ash
Coal ash may be the secret source of cancer-causing chromium in your drinking water

EPA’s Blind Spot: Hexavalent Chromium in Coal Ash

Author: Lisa Evans, Earthjustice Contributing Authors: Barb Gottlieb, Physicians for Social Responsibility; Lisa Widawsky, Jeff Stant, Abel Russ, John Dawes, Environmental Integrity Project Environmental Consultant: J. Russell Boulding
February 1, 2011


Hexavalent chromium is again in the headlines. In the 1990s, Erin Brockovich achieved fame by uncovering the presence of extraordinarily high levels of industrial hexavalent chromium contamination in the drinking water of a small desert town ravaged by cancer. Today, attention to the deadly chemical is fueled by new data and extensive scientific research. In December 2010, the Environmental Working Group released a report documenting the cancer-causing chemical in tap water in 31 of 35 cities tested in the United States.1 Days later, on December 31, 2010, the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) completed a multi-year, peer- reviewed examination of the oral toxicity of the chemical, involving scientists in both the public and private sectors, and released a ground breaking proposal to establish a public health goal for hexavalent chromium in drinking water of just 0.02 parts per billion (or ug/L), 5,000 times lower than the current federal drinking water standard for total chromium.2

On January 11, 2011, on the heels of these announcements, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued new guidelines recommending that public water utilities nationwide test drinking water for hexavalent chromium (Cr(VI)).3 EPA’s swift reaction to the widespread presence of hexavalent chromium in American tap water is laudable. However, EPA’s well-placed concern for protection of public health has a dangerous blind spot. While government regulators express concern for small quantities of the cancer-causing substance in our water, they are ignoring one of the largest sources of the hazardous chemical—coal combustion waste (or coal ash)4 from the nation’s coal burning power plants.

This report documents the connection between coal ash and hexavalent chromium. It reviews the sources, toxicity, and known coal ash dump sites where chromium has been found in groundwater. The report identifies studies of numerous power plants where testing of coal ash leachate found extremely high levels of hexavalent chromium. The report also identifies 28 coal ash disposal sites in 17 states where groundwater was documented to exceed existing federal or state standards for chromium and to exceed by many orders of magnitude the proposed California drinking water goal for hexavalent chromium. These contaminated coal ash dump sites are likely the tip of the iceberg. The threat of drinking water contamination by hexavalent chromium is present in hundreds of communities near unlined coal ash disposal sites across the United States. While the EPA doesn’t need another reason to define coal ash as a hazardous waste, it certainly has one now.

Hexavalent Chromium and Coal Ash: The Deadly Connection

It has long been known that chromium readily leaches from coal ash.5 Chromium, however, occurs primarily in two forms: trivalent chromium, which is an essential nutrient in small amounts, and hexavalent chromium, Cr(IV), which is highly toxic even in small doses. In EPA’s latest report on the hazardous contaminants in coal ash, the agency made two important findings:

 Coal ash leaches chromium in amounts that can greatly exceed EPA’s threshold for hazardous waste at 5000 parts per billion (ppb),6 and

 The chromium that leaches from coal ash is “nearly 100 percent [hexavalent] Cr(VI).”7

Remarkably, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and the energy industry have also known for years about the aggressive leaching of hexavalent chromium from coal ash. In a 2006 report co-sponsored by DOE, the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) found definitively that the chromium that leaches from coal ash (including FGD sludge) is 97– 100 percent hexavalent chromium.8

These findings, buried in government reports, need to see the light of day. Hundreds – maybe thousands – of leaking and unlined coal ash dumps are situated near water supplies. EPA and DOE have demonstrated that the contaminated leachate (the liquid leaking from coal ash landfills and ponds) is often rich in this cancer-causing chemical. Therefore it is imperative that EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson act decisively to protect U.S. communities from this significant source of hexavalent chromium.

Hexavalent Chromium’s Deadly Link to Cancer

In 2008, a two-year study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ National Toxicology Program (NTP)9 demonstrated that hexavalent chromium in drinking water causes cancer in laboratory animals.10 While it has long been known that hexavalent chromium causes lung cancer when inhaled, the NTP undertook a study of Cr(VI) ingestion following a request from California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA). Based on a variety of cancerous oral and intestinal tumors, the NTP study definitively concluded “hexavalent chromium can also cause cancer in animals when administered orally.”11

Furthermore, scientists believe chronic ingestion of minute amounts of Cr(VI) can be harmful. In fact, after an extensive peer-reviewed study, the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment lowered its original hexavalent chromium draft goal by 66 percent this year to account for the special sensitivity of infants and children to carcinogens. California’s proposed public health goal, 0.02 parts per billion, is a mere 0.02% of the present federal drinking water standard for total chromium. If the current federal drinking water standard (100 parts per billion) is compared to a 100-yard football field, California’s proposed goal for Cr(VI)would be a distance of three-quarters of an inch.

According to EPA’s 2010 draft toxicological review of hexavalent chromium, EPA agrees with the estimate of cancer potency used by California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment. California’s Draft Public Health Goal12 and the U.S. EPA Draft Toxicological Review of Hexavalent Chromium13 both use the same cancer potency value for ingested hexavalent chromium of 0.5 (mg/kg-d)-1. Using EPA’s default assumptions for body weight and drinking water ingestion rate, it is possible to estimate the lifetime cancer risk associated with drinking water at the current federal drinking water standard for total chromium of 100 ppb (established in 1991) – the risk is 1.4 in 1,000 people.14 This risk is 140 – 1400 times greater than EPA’s range of acceptable cancer risk (between1 in 100,000 and 1 in 1,000,000 people).15 Clearly, in view of this elevated risk recognized by both EPA and OEHHA, the 1991 federal drinking water standard of 100 ppb for total chromium is not sufficiently protective of human health from ingestion of hexavalent chromium. While a new federal drinking water standard for hexavalent chromium may be higher than California’s proposed goal of 0.02 ppb, this health-protective level, as well as the current federal standard, are used as a comparison to coal ash-contaminated waters in this report.

Ingestion of Hexavalent Chromium Is Missing from EPA’s Coal Ash Risk Assessment

Although the cancer risk associated with Cr(VI) in groundwater is substantial, EPA completely ignored this risk in its proposed coal ash rulemaking. While Cr(VI) was discussed in the preamble to the proposed rule, it was treated as a carcinogen by inhalation only. For purposes of calculating the human health risk by ingestion, Cr(VI) was treated as a non-carcinogen.16 Despite the clear findings of NTP’s 2008 studies, the cancer risk of ingested Cr(VI) was not mentioned once in EPA’s 400-page “Health and Ecological Risk Assessment for Coal Combustion Wastes.”

Coal Ash Dump Sites Are Significant Sources of Hexavalent Chromium

Coal ash can leach deadly quantities of Cr(VI) to drinking water.17 For example, in the 2006 study18 by the Electric Power Research Institute, an organization that vehemently opposes a hazardous designation for coal ash, EPRI tested leachate—liquid collected from wells, ponds or seeps at coal ash dumps—at 29 coal ash landfills and ponds and found hexavalent chromium at hundreds of times the proposed California drinking water goal at 15 coal ash disposal sites. Their findings included three landfills where leachate exceeded the proposed drinking water goal by 5,000 times, with two landfills exceeding that goal by 100,000 and 250,000 times. The location of these potentially deadly dumps is not known, but the high levels of hexavalent chromium at the sites may pose a danger to those living near the landfills. Table A lists the coal ash dump sites where leachate was found containing hexavalent chromium over 5,000 times the proposed California health goal.

Table A

Coal Ash Dump Sites Identified by the Electric Power Research Institute with Leachate containing Hexavalent Chromium (Cr(VI))

The access/view the table go to page 5 – http://www.psr.org/assets/pdfs/epas-blind-spot.pdf

In addition, data from known coal ash disposal sites obtained from EPA reports19 and recent studies by Earthjustice, the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) and the Sierra Club20 make it eminently clear that the threat is widespread and serious. For example, chromium in groundwater contaminated by a coal ash landfill in Ohio reached 1.68 parts per million – a level 84,000 times California’s proposed drinking water goal (if nearly all the chromium measured was hexavalent, as predicted in both EPA’s and EPRI’s reports). Table B lists 28 coal ash dump sites in 17 states where coal ash contaminated groundwater was found to contain chromium at levels exceeding the current federal drinking water standard (100 ppb) or an applicable state standard (50 ppb for groundwater in North Carolina). Often EPA did not provide a specific value for the chromium found in groundwater wells, but simply indicated that it was greater than the federal standard of 100 ppb. These chromium concentrations, if 100 percent hexavalent chromium, represent a level 5,000 times higher than the proposed California goal. In Table B, all chromium is assumed to be hexavalent chromium, a premise supported by the studies conducted by EPA, DOE and EPRI. In addition, most of the coal ash ponds, landfills and fill sites listed below are unlined – a factor that greatly increases the danger to neighboring communities. Lastly, while many of the sites below have undergone some form of remediation under Superfund or state authorities, in most cases the contamination has been left in place, and there may be little attempt to monitor its migration offsite to protect well users from harmful exposure to hexavalent chromium or other toxic metals commonly found in coal ash leachate.

Uniontown, Ohio: A Coal Ash Site Where Health May be Endangered

The Industrial Excess Landfill, near Uniontown, Ohio is an example of the kind of site that may be posing a threat to the surrounding community from contamination of drinking water with hexavalent chromium. The landfill is a Superfund site surrounded on three sides by residential neighborhoods. Roughly one million tons of coal ash were dumped at the landfill in the 1960s. The landfill was closed in 1980, and EPA listed it as a Superfund site in 1986. Groundwater monitoring since then has shown chromium concentrations to be increasing to very dangerous levels. Systematic groundwater monitoring began in 1987, and chromium was detected at concentrations up to 180 ppb in off-site wells. Sampling in the early 1990s found concentrations of chromium over 100 ppb in eight monitoring wells, with concentrations up to 739 ppb. Monitoring through 2001 detected chromium at up to 1,680 ppb in off-site wells located in or near residential areas- over 15 times the federal drinking water standard. Residents report many incidences of cancer in the affected neighborhoods.

Despite alarming evidence of off-site groundwater contamination with heavy metals, including chromium, metals monitoring was phased out around 2001, and remedial actions stopped in 2005. And yet the potential for human exposure to this contamination is very high—there are almost 4,000 private drinking water wells within two miles of the site, and about 90 wells within 1,500 feet. Some homes have been provided with alternative water supplies, but many have not. The cancer risk associated with drinking water having chromium concentrations over 100 ppb is greater than 1 in 1,000. The risk associated with the highest known concentration, 1,680 ppb, would be greater than 1 in 50. Furthermore, this cancer risk would be amplified by the presence of arsenic and other carcinogens in the coal ash contaminant plume.

EPA Laboratory Testing of Coal Ash Reveals Dramatic Chromium Leaching

EPA also found that leachate produced in the laboratory from coal ash at a variety of plants contained sky-high chromium. In a 2009 report, EPA tested coal ash leachate by obtaining waste from numerous operating power plants.21 EPA found that many ashes and sludges produce leachate extremely rich in chromium. The table below provides EPA’s results from five plants. These results represent the highest level of chromium in leachate determined by EPA lab tests. Unlike the EPRI data in Table A and the groundwater and surface water data in Table B, the results below were not field samples. However, EPA used a leach test that mimics field conditions in order to determine the range of chromium that would leach from coal ash disposed under real-world conditions. If this leachate were seeping or leaking into groundwater from a landfill or pond, it could threaten drinking water wells and human health. While the public is not likely to be exposed to coal ash leachate at full strength, leachate this rich in chromium, even if it is diluted as it flows through groundwater, can still pose a significant hazard when it reaches drinking water wells.

How much chromium is released by U.S. Coal-Fired Power Plants each year?

The amount of chromium released by our nation’s coal-burning power plants dwarfs all other industrial sources. According to EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory, the electric power industry dumps over ten million pounds of chromium and chromium compounds in on-and off-site disposal sites each year. Between 2000 and 2009, over 116 million pounds of chromium and chromium compounds were released from coal-fired power plants. The overwhelming majority of this chromium ends up in unlined or inadequately lined coal ash landfills, ponds, and mines. See Table D.

In 2009, the electric power industry reported 10.6 million pounds of chromium and chromium compounds were released to the environment (10.1 million of which was dumped in disposal sites). These 10.6 million pounds represent 24 percent of the total chromium and chromium compounds released by all industries in 2009. See Chart, below. In fact, the top ten chromium-releasing coal-fired power plants alone released almost 1.8 million pounds of chromium and chromium compounds in 2009, and each of these has at least one – if not, more than one – unlined coal ash disposal unit. Despite the obvious significance of this source of chromium, coal-fired power plants are rarely tagged as a source of hexavalent chromium.

As the Air Gets Cleaner, the Threat to Drinking Water Increases

EPA has found that as power plants reduce their emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOX) by employing pollution controls at the power plant stacks, more hexavalent chromium is found in the flue gas desulfurization (FGD) sludge.22 According to EPA, over half of the U.S. coal-fired capacity is projected to be equipped with SCR and/or FGD technology by 2020.23 In fact, EPA anticipates an increase of approximately 16% in scrubbed units by 2015.24 Thus as the Clean Air Act requires more and more plants to install pollution controls, we may experience a much greater threat to our drinking water from hexavalent chromium if disposal of the increased volume of FGD sludge is not properly controlled.

EPA Must Determine that Coal Ash is Hazardous

Although coal ash readily leaches hexavalent chromium, the waste is currently not federally regulated and is routinely dumped in unlined ponds and pits and used as construction fill without restriction. EPA must keep this dangerous chemical out of our water – by regulating coal ash as a hazardous waste, thereby requiring its disposal in safe, secure landfills.

In addition, EPA should immediately investigate the ponds, landfills and fill sites identified in this report to determine if public health is being threatened by exposure to hexavalent chromium, including:

 The three landfills identified in the DOE/EPRI report where Cr(VI) levels in leachate exceed proposed drinking water goals by thousands to hundreds of thousands of times (Table A);

 The 28 landfills, ponds and fill sites where groundwater has been contaminated with chromium over the current federal drinking water standard (Table B) and thousands of times over the proposed drinking water goal (Table B); and

 The disposal sites at the five plants where EPA’s laboratory tests document the potential for dangerous levels of Cr(VI) to leach from ash and sludge (Table C).

EPA must conduct these investigations to ensure that highly contaminated leachate from these coal ash disposal sites is not leaking into drinking water and threatening human health. However, it is important to understand that these sites do not represent the universe of coal ash sites that have contaminated groundwater with chromium. Most coal ash disposal sites in the U.S. is are not monitored sufficiently to determine whether they are contaminating groundwater, and certainly very few coal ash sites are monitored for hexavalent chromium at all. Ultimately only the regulation of coal ash under subtitle C of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act will ensure that these disposal sites, as well as every coal ash dump in the nation, are constructed securely and monitored sufficiently to keep hexavalent chromium out of our drinking water.

To access the tables, sources, and additional information click below.

EPA’s Blind Spot: Hexavalent Chromium in Coal Ash

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