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Tr-Ash Talk: Mapping Environmental Injustice

From South Carolina to Alabama and all across the country, coal ash—which can leach dangerous toxic chemicals like arsenic, lead, cadmium, mercury, and selenium into groundwater—is often stockpiled in low-income communities.

Coal ash presents risks of both catastrophic spills, like the 2008 TVA coal ash disaster, and more common dangers, like pollution of groundwater used for human consumption. Poor ash disposal practices can cause cancer, neurological damage and other ailments in people unfortunate enough to live near impoundments or unlined landfills.

Who are the unlucky Americans facing the threat of coal ash in their communities?

Too often, they are those least equipped to respond to water contamination: low-income individuals who are more likely to rely on groundwater supplies and less likely to have access to medical insurance and care.

Coal ash ponds are located throughout the United States, but almost 70 percent are in areas where household income is lower than the national median. The population living below the poverty line near coal plants (which may contain ash ponds or landfills) is almost 20 percent larger than would be expected based on state averages.

Certain states face more disproportionate impacts than others. About 25 percent of residents living near ash ponds in Arizona, New Mexico and Louisiana are below the poverty line. In Alabama, around one-fifth of residents living near coal ash ponds are below the poverty line. These figures are well above the national average poverty rate of 12.38 percent. The maps paint a picture of environmental injustice in Arizona, New Mexico and Alabama. Any area shown in blue has an above-average poverty rate, and the pushpins represent places where coal ash is produced and/or stored.

(Click for full-size image.)

(Click for full-size image.)

Despite a Clinton-era Executive Order compelling government agencies to address environmental injustices, income and race remain strong predictors of the amount of pollution that Americans face in their lifetimes. The EPA can tackle this inequality by enacting strong, federally enforceable standards for the disposal of toxic coal ash, ensuring that no communities suffer from the adverse health impacts caused by coal ash pollution.