Discolored, polluted water at the coal ash pond of the Cross Generating Plant coal-fired power plant near Pineville, SC.

A coal-fired power plant in Purvis is one of the top groundwater contaminators in the country, according to a report published Monday. As a result of coal ash being dumped into landfills, groundwater near the R.D. Morrow, Sr. Generating Station contained nearly two hundred times the safe amount of lithium, among other pollutants, the analysis found.

The study, released by the nonprofit watchdog The Environmental Integrity Project, found that 91 percent of coal powered plants that reported data are contaminating groundwater with unsafe levels of toxic pollutants.

The plant in Purvis, also called Plant Morrow, ranked ninth in the country for groundwater contamination. In addition to lithium, which is associated with neurological damage, findings show three times the safe amount of arsenic, a known carcinogen, 12 times the safe amount of boron, as well as three other pollutants.

That Lamar County facility includes a 72-acre landfill as well as two smaller landfills that are unlined, meaning they lack a barrier between dumped ash and groundwater.

Cooperative Energy, which operates Plant Morrow, announced last June a five-year plan to convert the site to a natural gas-fired combined cycle plant, a common pivot for utility companies now. The new unit is expected to be in service by 2023.

“Electric cooperatives are committed to the health and well-being of our local communities, and are further committed to the ongoing process of protecting our ground water and our environment,” said Christa Bishop, Executive Vice President of the company. “Cooperative Energy has always been in compliance with all federal and state environmental laws and regulations, including the Environmental Protection Agency’s Coal Combustion Residual rule.

“As an electric utility, we do not have a position on reports produced by advocacy groups. Cooperative Energy’s focus, rather, remains maintaining compliance with all environmental regulations.”

The Environmental Protection Agency’s Coal Ash Rule, a regulation from 2015, required power companies to start reporting pollutant data in March 2018. This report examined data from groundwater near 265 plants, about three quarters of the coal power plants in the U.S.

“This is a wake-up call for the nation,” said Lisa Evans, Senior Counsel with coauthor Earthjustice. “Using industry’s own data, our report proves that coal plants are poisoning groundwater nearly everywhere they operate. The Trump Administration insists on hurting communities across the U.S. by gutting federal protections. They are making a dire situation much worse.”

Last July, then acting EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler updated the requirements in the 2015 Coal Ash Rule to allow more flexibility to state and industry officials. The change gives utility companies an extra 18 months to use unlined coal ash ponds and groundwater-adjacent sites for dumping; moreover, companies can now obtain a 10-year waiver from monitoring if it finds no pollution.

Wheeler, confirmed Thursday to replace Scott Pruitt as EPA chief, worked previously as a lobbyist for Murray Energy, a coal company.

Monday’s report also found groundwater pollutants by two other Mississippi plants: Plant Daniel in Moss Point, where groundwater shows five times the safe amount of lithium, and the Red Hills Power Plant in Ackerman, where monitoring found high amounts of both lithium and cobalt.

The report emphasizes that the Coal Ash Rule does not require monitoring of the hundreds of inactive ash dumps; landfills and impoundments that stopped receiving waste before October 2015 are exempt from monitoring, and utility companies aren’t required to acknowledge them or disclose their location. Because those sites are not monitored, researchers are unsure how much pollutants from those dumps are impacting groundwater data, and, moreover, how many of those dumps even exist. Most of the plants examined in the study have one or more unregulated dump.

“The findings of this report are disturbing, but unfortunately not surprising,” said Jennifer Peters, National Water Programs Director for Clean Water Action. “For decades, coal utilities have been dumping their toxic waste in primitive pits— often unlined, unstable, and near groundwater—while state and federal regulators have mostly looked the other way. These dangerous coal ash ponds should have been closed and cleaned up years ago.”

The report includes testimonies from residents who found contamination in their drinking water, including in Tennessee and North Carolina. About 115 million Americans, or one in three, drink from groundwater.

Editor’s note: The story has been updated since originally publishing to include comments from Cooperative Energy.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Take our 2023 reader survey

Alex Rozier, from New York City, is Mississippi Today’s data and environment reporter. His work has appeared in the Boston Globe, Open Secrets, and on NBC.com. In 2019, Alex was a grantee through the Pulitzer Center’s Connected Coastlines program, which supported his coverage around the impact of climate change on Mississippi fisheries.