As the nation approaches the one-year anniversary of the TVA toxic coal ash sludge disaster, the Sierra Club, Earthjustice and Environmental Integrity Project took action to compel the Environmental Protection Agency to release important information, including the storage capacity, inspection results, and records of violations, of more than 70 sites nationwide that store coal combustion waste in wet impoundments.
Companies like Duke Energy, Alabama Power, Georgia Power and First Energy have asked the EPA to withhold the information claiming it is so-called "confidential business information." The three groups filed a complaint late Tuesday in federal district court under the Freedom of Information Act to obtain the withheld information because they believe access to it is vital to the health and safety of those living near these potentially hazardous sites.
"Most utilities have already provided EPA with exactly the same data that Duke, First Energy, and the Southern Company subsidiaries are trying to keep the public from seeing," said Eric Schaeffer, Executive Director of the Environmental Integrity Project. "Their attempts to hide the size of their ash ponds and other relevant information are absurd, and ought to be quickly rejected by EPA."
"People living near these coal ash sites have a right to know if the sites have failed inspections or have a history of safety violations," said Mary Anne Hitt, Deputy Director of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign. "We're talking about some of the largest dump sites in the nation here where the risks aren't being made public."
In response to demands made by Earthjustice, Environmental Integrity Project, and Sierra Club, the EPA released data earlier this year that show there are almost twice as many coal ash dumps as previously identified, and that the largest dumps tended to be the oldest, offering the least amount of protection. The majority of the dump sites, which were identified in 35 states, are over three decades old. These are the same kind of facilities as the Tennessee Valley Authority impoundment that failed last December, releasing a billion gallon flood of toxic coal ash sludge that destroyed three homes and eventually covered over 300 acres in Harriman, Tennessee. While the information released by the EPA to date provides the most comprehensive look at the scale of the coal ash problem yet available, additional data crucial to addressing the risks have been withheld by the EPA.
"In a few weeks, EPA will take the unprecedented step of proposing a nationwide rule governing coal ash disposal," said Todd True, Earthjustice attorney. "The public needs to have all the relevant information about the largest toxic waste ponds in the US -- not only to protect their communities -- but to participate meaningfully in the upcoming rulemaking."
Coal ash sites contain harmful levels of arsenic, lead, mercury and other toxins, which can leach out slowly and contaminate drinking water sources or flood communities as happened in Tennessee. The EPA has so far identified 49 coal ash impoundments as "high hazard" sites, meaning that a failure at one of the facilities could lead to the loss of human life.
The groups seeking release of the information through this lawsuit are the Sierra Club and the Environmental Integrity Project. The groups are represented by Earthjustice and private attorney Dave Bahr.