A 60 Minutes investigation Sunday night underscored the danger of coal ash and the need for federal regulation of the toxic, hazardous substance. While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently revealed crucial data about 584 coal ash dump states across the country -- data the agency released after Earthjustice and other environmental groups filed Freedom of Information Act requests -- they have yet to regulate the mix of toxic pollutants and leave that up to states. Earthjustice attorney Lisa Evans has spent the last decade tracking this issue:
"60 Minutes revealed to a national television audience what we've been stating for years: plain and simple, coal ash is dangerous and must be regulated. Releasing information about these sites is an important first step but we need strict monitoring and regulation of coal ash to protect communities across the country from another disaster like the TVA spill in Tennessee.
"With news reports digging up the dirty truth on these sites, we're hopeful the EPA will follow suit with appropriate regulation. Just last month, the EPA finally released data on 584 coal ash ponds in 35 states. The data show that there is capacity in these aging ponds to store enough toxic ash to flow continually over Niagara Falls for three days straight, or fill up over 700 Empire State buildings. That coal ash remains unregulated is a travesty we hope the Obama administration will soon resolve.
"The data reveal that the majority of dump sites are nearly four decades old – at the end of their estimated life spans -- raising questions about the structural integrity of their dams. In addition, about 95% of these old ponds are unlined or inadequately lined -- thus they cannot prevent the migration of harmful chemicals to drinking water. The data also reveal that regulatory inspections of these dams by state and federal agencies are infrequent or non-existent. These conditions pose real threats that the utility industry has refused to admit and that the EPA must now address."
Some quick facts about the 584 U.S. coal ash ponds:
Total surface area for 495 coal ash ponds: 29,350 acres (this number does not include 74 large ash ponds for which no data was given due to Confidential Business Information claims made by Duke Energy and Southern Company, among others -- thus the total surface area for all coal ash ponds is significantly higher).
Coal ash in these ponds could completely cover an area twice the size of Manhattan, or the entire City of San Francisco, about 46 square miles.
Total storage in gallons for all reported coal ash ponds: 204,316,071,573.
Coal ash storage could fill up approximately 263 Dallas Cowboys stadiums with wet ash.
21 coal ash ponds are larger than the Tennessee Valley Authority site that spilled in December 2008; only one of them is less than 19 years old, and 2 of them were built in 1951. The Greene County Power Station and James H. Miller Power Station in Alabama are 5 million and 5.5 million acre feet in size, respectively—and Alabama has no laws pertaining to the disposal of coal ash in ponds.
EPA's data did not include information on the size, volume and location of the hundreds of dry coal ash dump sites throughout the U.S—which are likely to be similar in volume and size to the ponds.
The ash in these ponds is nothing like common "dirt." For example, according to the EPA's Report to Congress, the coal ash in surface impoundments leaches arsenic at a mean level 160 times the federal drinking water standard and actual arsenic leaching reached a level of 964 times that standard.
Below is a chart detailing statistics on the 584 wet ash ponds spanning 35 states:
# of Coal Ash Ponds
Storage Capacity: Acre Ft.
Storage Capacity: Gallons
[No Data Provided]
[No Data Provided]
[No Data Provided]
[No data provided]
*Power companies in these states had Confidential Business Information claims for some or all of the coal as ponds within that state. Information about size, storage capacity, number of ponds were incomplete, confidential, or blank.
Raviya Ismail, Earthjustice, (202) 667-4500, ext. 221
Earthjustice is the premier nonprofit environmental law organization. We wield the power of law and the strength of partnership to protect people’s health, to preserve magnificent places and wildlife, to advance clean energy, and to combat climate change. We are here because the earth needs a good lawyer.