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This opinion piece was written for Earthjustice and is reprinted here with permission.

A while back, we documented the threat of hexavalent chromium in drinking water and the fact that it leaches from coal ash disposal sites across the country. Sadly hexavalent chromium and coal ash share a headline again in this story out of Madison, Wis.

The article details the results of a study that found hexavalent chromium, or chromium-6, in 13 of 16 drinking water wells used by residents of Madison. The sources of Madison’s hexavelent chromium water tainting include lumber yards, gas stations, auto body shops, electrical stores, upholsterers and coal ash landfills.

The mention of coal ash is buried toward the end of the story, but the facts are startling. The story details that tons of coal ash from coal plants have been disposed of in landfills in Madison. Furthermore, coal ash was used extensively to fill marshes and city workers continually came across layers of coal ash while digging for street and other construction projects. The amount of chromium released by our nation’s coal-burning power plants is larger than all other industrial sources, according to the EPA.

The combination of hexavalent chromium and coal ash packs a potent punch. Coal ash contains unsafe levels of mercury, arsenic, lead, and other toxic metals known to cause cancer and damage organs. The EPA and health experts have found that ingesting hexavalent chromium in drinking water—even in minute amounts—can cause cancers of the stomach and of the mouth.

The Madison results came after the Environmental Working Group tested tap water and found hexavalent chromium in the wells of 31 of 35 cities tested. The highest levels were in Norman, Okla.; Honolulu, HI and Riverside, Calif.

There is no national standard that limits the amount of hexavalent chromium in our drinking water, but California officials in 2010 proposed a state limit of 0.02 parts per billion to reduce cancer risk. In water samples from 25 of the cities the Environmental Working Group tested, hexavalent chromium was found in concentrations that exceeded California’s proposal, in one case more than 200 times higher.

Another fact that may give you pause before you gulp that glass of tap: at least 74 million Americans in 42 states drink chromium-polluted tap water, most likely the carcinogenic variety.

Not only has the EPA not set a limit on hexavalent chromium in our tap water, it still sits on a comprehensive rule that will regulate the disposal and handling of toxic coal ash. A few weeks ago U.S. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson revealed that the agency would need more time to review the 450,000 public comments the agency generated on their coal ash proposal. Sigh.

It was nearly a year ago that the agency announced its plan to regulate coal ash dumps across the country and still, we wait. How much longer? 

Tr-Ash talk: Put down that glass!
Cancer-causing agent found in drinking wells in Madison, Wis.