NV Energy power plant releasing toxic chromium into environment, groups say

NV Energy's coal-fired Reid Gardner power plant is one of 28 nationwide that releases toxic chromium into the environment, according to a new report by watchdog groups.

The groups -- Earthjustice, Sierra Club, Physicians for Social Responsibility and the Environmental Integrity Project -- want the Environmental Protection Agency to target a cancer-causing chromium compound, known as hexavalent chromium, when it updates the 1991 drinking water standard.

A health-risk assessment for hexavalent chromium, also known as chromium-6, is expected to be completed by the EPA this year. If the EPA succeeds, the risk assessment will come more than a decade after Erin Brockovich became famous for uncovering extreme levels of industrial hexavalent chromium contamination in the drinking water of a California desert town where residents suffered from a high rate of cancer linked to it.

The groups assert that without completing a risk assessment to bring the safe drinking water guideline in line with the goal California is considering for hexavalent chromium, the EPA would be "turning a blind eye" to the problem posed by chromium contamination spreading from coal ash landfills such as the Reid Gardner Generating Station near Moapa, 50 miles northeast of Las Vegas.

"Communities near coal ash sites must add hexavalent chromium to the list of toxic chemicals that threaten their health and families," Earthjustice counsel Lisa Evans said Monday in a telephone interview from Boston. "Obviously there is contamination migrating from the coal ash landfill, and that should be a cause for concern."

An NV Energy spokesman said the company is following guidance from the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection to curb the release of contaminants from its coal ash landfill.

"Groundwater samples near the landfill and samples from the Muddy River show total chromium is below the federal drinking water standard, therefore hexavalent chromium would be even lower," NV Energy's Mark Severts said in an e-mail. "The Sierra Club and Earthjustice report is simply another example of their national agenda to use every possible attack to try to close all coal-fueled power plants nationwide.

"Their information does not seem to correlate with our routine testing and regular reports to the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection."

Severts said that since 2008, the company collected 81 groundwater samples downstream of the landfill toward the Muddy River.

"In each case, the total chromium levels -- which can occur naturally in the environment -- were below the drinking water standard," he said. Severts said that in the past two years, there have been 50 samples collected and analyzed from the Muddy River -- both upstream and downstream from the plant -- and total chromium concentrations were all less than one-third of the drinking water standard.

In 2009, the EPA's toxic release inventory showed the Reid Gardner power plant released 169 pounds of chromium into the air, and 48,262 pounds were put in the station's coal ash landfill near the Muddy River, which flows into Lake Mead, Southern Nevada's primary drinking water supply.

The groups' report said that in addition to hexavalent chromium, coal ash contains other toxic elements that can cause cancer and damage the nervous system and organs, especially in children.

According to the report titled "EPA's Blind Spot: Hexavalent Chromium in Coal Ash," the highest level of chromium reported from Reid Gardner's landfill was slightly above, or 1.1 times, the federal drinking water standard of 100 parts per billion.

Evans, senior administrative counsel for Earthjustice, said that the Reid Gardner site reported in 2007 its highest chromium level: 110 parts per billion.

NV Energy's Severts said that sample was collected "up-gradient" from the Reid Gardner landfill "and likely is attributable to naturally occurring background chromium."

Las Vegas Valley Water District spokesman J.C. Davis, said his agency can detect chromium down to one-half of a part per billion in drinking water samples.

The district has tested for chromium for several years in Las Vegas tap water, and the results have always shown it is not detectable.

Contact reporter Keith Rogers at krogers@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0308.