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The Hex of Hexavalent Chromium

Updated: Feb 26

It’s often said that the devil is in the details. This is certainly true concerning chromium, the 24th element of the periodic table.

Compounds and isotopes of chromium have been used in red and yellow pigments, and to make those shiny bits on a motorcycle that get thumbs-up from guys with handle-bar mustaches. But hexavalent chromium, Cr(VI), refers to chromium compounds that cause contact dermatitis, organ damage, and cancers when inhaled or ingested.

On the heels of an Environmental Working Group report that found Cr(VI) in tap water of cities throughout the United States, EPA issued new guidance to drinking water suppliers on how to monitor for these toxic compounds while EPA studies the latest findings to determine if a newer, lower standard needs set.

One known source of Cr(VI) that can be tackled quickly is coal combustion waste (CCW). Various methods of removing pollutants produced by coal-fired power plants are very effective in cleaning smokestack emissions.  

But the pollutants are not destroyed–they are gathered and concentrated in the ash produced by these cleaning technologies.  

Often stored in unlined ponds or landfills, leachate from CCW can make its way into groundwater, raising Cr(VI) levels far above those considered safe. A new report by Earthjustice, Physicians for Social Responsibility, and Environmental Integrity Project entitled “EPA’s Blind Spot: Hexavalent Chromium in Coal Ash,” details 28 coal ash disposal sites that have contaminated groundwaters above federal or state standards.  

Two of those sites are in southwestern Pennsylvania, at Allegheny Energy’s Hatsfield’s Ferry plant in Masontown, and GenOn’s Seward Generating Station in New Florence.

Allegheny Energy spokesman David Neurohr responded to questions about the report by saying, simply enough, “We operate the landfill in compliance with DEP regulations.”

Whether that is true or not, it highlights what many environmentalists have been saying to EPA–if you leave proper handling of toxic CCW to individual states or companies to regulate, you might be left with weak (or no) regulations.  

GASP and many others spoke with EPA recently, telling the agency to consider CCW under strict guidelines as the dangerous waste that it is. Hundreds of others agreed with us and filled conference halls across the country.

We agree with the new report.  EPA must keep this chemical out of our water by creating strong, federally enforceable regulations.  We can’t let our health be affected by choices made by politically motivated state administrations or behind the closed doors of corporate board rooms.

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