WASHINGTON -- A study released Thursday finds that 39 sites in 21 states where coal-fired power plants dump their coal ash are contaminating water with toxic metals such as arsenic and other pollutants, and that the problem is more extensive than previously estimated.

The analysis of state pollution data by the Environmental Integrity Project, the Sierra Club and Earthjustice comes as the Environmental Protection Agency is considering whether to impose federally enforceable regulations for the first time. An alternative would leave the regulation of coal ash disposal up to the states, as it is now.

The EPA will hold the first of seven nationwide hearings about the proposed regulation Monday in Arlington, Va. A public comment period ends Nov. 19.

The electric power industry is lobbying to keep regulation up to individual states. Environmental groups said the states have failed to protect the public and that the EPA should set a national standard and enforce it.

"This is a huge and very real public health issue for Americans," said the director of the study, Jeff Stant of the Environmental Integrity Project. "Coal ash is putting drinking water around these sites at risk."

The EIP is a nonpartisan organization that advocates for enforcement of environmental laws.

Lisa Evans, an attorney for Earthjustice, an environmental law firm, said state regulation hasn't protected people living near the waste sites from health problems. Many states have allowed the dumps to be built without adequate liners or monitoring, and have done little when contamination was discovered, she said.

Of the 39 sites analyzed, 35 had groundwater monitoring wells on the grounds of the waste disposal area.

All of them showed concentrations of heavy metals such as arsenic and lead that exceeded federal health standards.

The other four had only water-monitoring data from rivers or lakes where the waste sites discharged water. Scientists found contamination that damaged aquatic life.

No sites in South Carolina were analyzed for the report, but previous reports have found contamination in some landfill operators' properties and the groundwater below.

The new report, following a previous study by the environmental groups and EPA's own tally, brings the number of contaminated coal waste sites to 137 in 34 states.

Thursday's report specified the amount of arsenic, cadmium, lead, selenium and other pollutants found at each site. The pollutants are linked to cancer, respiratory diseases and other health and developmental problems.

Most states don't require monitoring of drinking water near the waste sites. The study found five sites where monitoring figures were available, and all of them had some contamination.

Series

Go to postandcourier.com/toxicash to read The Post and Courier's award winning series, Toxic Ash, A License to Pollute