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Coal Ash Contaminates Our Lives

When the EPA said on its website that April was going to be the month when we'd see the first ever federal coal ash regulations, environmental groups were in support. Sure, it would be four months later than what the EPA originally promised when a billion gallons of coal ash spilled across 300 acres in Tennessee, but we remained optimistic.

Now the month is half over and still no coal ash regulations. So, we're taking our fight up the ladder.

I know how crazy this sounds: I love spending time reading through arcane government filings in the Federal Register and on Regulations.gov. I'm fascinated by the volume of it all, and like a modern day miner panning for environmental gold, I sometimes unearth a juicy nugget of information. Today is one of those days.

Coal ash currently stored in ponds across the U.S. could flow continuosly over Niagara Falls for three days straight. The new Dallas Cowboys stadium couldn't hold all the coal ash in those ponds; in fact, you'd need 263 Dallas Cowboys stadiums to hold it all. We'd need to build 738 Empire State buildings to contain it all.

I remember my first thought when I read the papers on Dec. 23, the day after one of the biggest environmental disasters in our nation's history: "This is only the beginning."

The stories about the spill came out like the spill itself: slow at first, then in a huge, sudden avalanche of sad details. 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash from the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston Power Plant burst through a dam near Harriman and spread over 300 acres of pristine shoreline along the Emory and Clinch Rivers.

Almost one year ago, a dyke holding back the 40-acre coal ash pond at the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston Fossil Plant broke, releasing more than 500 million gallons of toxic coal ash. The sludge (six feet deep in some places) spread out over 400 acres, damaged 12 homes, and wrecked a train. It was the largest human-induced environmental disaster since Chernobyl.

When is hazardous coal ash not considered hazardous? According to the Environmental Protection Agency, when you dump it in a landfill as opposed to a pond. This approach is currently being floated by the EPA in its plans to regulate coal ash later this year. Coal ash—the waste left over after coal is burned at coal-fired power plants—is full of dangerously high levels of arsenic, lead, mercury, cadmium and other hazardous metals. Cancer rates skyrocket near coal ash dumps that have leaked into drinking water supplies.

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