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Tr-Ash Talk: The High Price of Coal Ash Ponds

Each year millions of gallons of toxic chemicals flow into lakes, streams, rivers and bays from our nation’s “surface impoundments”—often referred to as “coal ash” ponds. The well-documented result is the death and mutation of fish and wildlife. Recently, two senior scientists examined the damage from those ponds and put a price on their immense harm.

Their article, published last month in Environmental Science and Technology, describes the devastating damage and the high economic cost that is passed onto taxpayers. This article is timely as S.3512, a new coal ash bill in the Senate, threatens to prolong the life of these toxic vats by prohibiting the EPA from finalizing a rule that would require their phase out and put an end to this harmful dumping practice. The peer-reviewed report was completed by A. Dennis Lemly, Ph.D. of the U.S. Forest Service and Joseph Skorupa, Ph.D. of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The scientists conducted a comprehensive review of environmental damage at coal ash ponds since 1967 and found:

  • $2.3 billion in past damage to fish and wildlife over the last 45 years from coal ash impoundments.
  • $3.85 billion in projected damage from coal ash ponds over the next 50 years.
  • $4.82 billion to $7.17 billion potentially saved—simply by protecting fish and wildlife—over the next five decades if coal ash ponds are phased out.

Drs. Lemly and Skorupa found that protection of fish and wildlife through elimination of surface impoundments would contribute at least $76 million per year in benefits to the American public. They wrote:

Placing the magnitude and importance of these cost savings in perspective, the total fish and wildlife protection value of $3.85 billion is greater than EPA’s monetized value for human cancer risks avoided plus the groundwater protection value gained under [EPA’s most stringent regulatory proposal].

Yet, neither the EPA nor the Office of Management and Budget took these substantial benefits into account when the agencies assessed the potential cost of the EPA’s coal ash rule in 2010. In fact, the EPA’s Regulatory Impact Assessment failed to include any benefits of avoided damages to natural resources whatsoever. The agencies did not just underestimate the benefits—they amazingly assigned a zero value to the monetary benefits of avoiding widespread poisoning of fish and wildlife with pollutants like arsenic and selenium.

Undoubtedly coal ash ponds are harmful to both our economy and ecology. The damage to fish and wildlife from ash pond pollution over the last 45 years—estimated at more than $2 billion—is enough to build 155 new state-of-the-art engineered landfills.

When our best scientists conclude that, “surface impoundments pose unacceptably high ecological risks regardless of location or design,” the science is clear. By encouraging the continued use of the nation’s 1,000 coal ash ponds, S.3512 is bad economic policy. The bill’s logic is as murky and dangerous as the toxic ponds it protects at the expense of U.S. taxpayers.