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Tr-Ash Talk: Risky Retirement

Across the country, communities near retiring coal plants are breathing collective sighs of relief. Closures, however, raise vexing questions about the millions of tons of toxic waste that may lie beneath the surface. Over decades, most plants have buried battleship-sized deposits of coal ash in landfills and lagoons near their plants. In the absence of federal mandates, utilities may leave behind a leaking legacy of deadly pollution, even after the belching stacks are long gone.

Communities have reason to be concerned. Buried coal ash can leach toxic metals into underground water supplies and adjacent lakes and streams for generations unless dumps are properly closed. Neighbors of Dominion’s Stateline Power plant, which will be retiring next month, have expressed these exact concerns. Located just across the Illinois border on the shore of Lake Michigan, the site has buried waste that could easily reach the lake.

As more than 100 aging coal plants close nationwide, a large number of communities must deal with buried toxic waste. The problem is that many states have no laws requiring the safe closure, cleanup or monitoring of such dumps. At sites like the State Line Generating Plant, this is an environmental justice issue, since three-quarters of nearby residents in Hammond are people of color and almost one-fifth live below the poverty line. Compounding the problem is that only the utilities know where their toxic waste is buried. Federal reporting requirements date back only to 1985, which is insufficient for a plant like State Line that has been operating for 89 years. Nearby baseball fields and grassy mounds may mask toxic landfills or lagoons.

How big is the problem? Below is a sampling of the approximate volume of coal ash buried between 1985–2010 at a few soon-to-be retired coal plants, according to the U.S. Department of Energy:

Coal-Fired Power Plant
Location of Plant
Total Onsite Disposal of
Coal Ash, 1985–2010
(except 2006–2007) in tons
Cape Fear
Moncure, NC
L V Sutton
Wilminton, NC
Walter C. Beckjord
New Richmond, OH
Clearfield, PA
Kittanning, PA

Source: U.S. Department of Energy, EIA Form 767 and Form 923

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Since all of these plants have been operating an average of 58 years, the above estimates certainly underestimate the threat.

In May 2010, the EPA proposed coal ash rules that would require proper closure of old plants, thereby protecting the health, environment and economy of the host communities. But these rules were never finalized. Thus, in several states where retirements are now occurring, like Indiana and Ohio, state law does not mandate such protection. Utility companies also announced the closure of numerous power plants in Illinois, as well as in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

EPA standards are desperately needed now, particularly in view of the accelerating rate of plant closures. Cleanup of toxic ash is the sole responsibility of the polluter who reaped decades of profits, often at the expense of the residents near their dirty plants. There is no other alternative.

Recently announced cuts to the federal Superfund program will prevent the EPA from starting new cleanups at contaminated properties, if utilities do not meet their obligations.

Communities that have long endured the serious health threats posed by coal plants must be left with a clean site that affords them a fresh start, not a toxic dump that continues to damage their health and financial well-being.