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EPA's First-Ever Coal Ash Rule Leaves Communities to Protect Themselves

Rule leaves critical gaps in protection from toxic coal ash
Annette Gibbs and her husband William stand in their front yard, near the Arrowhead Landfill in Perry County, AL.

Annette Gibbs and her husband William stand in their front yard, near the Arrowhead Landfill in Perry County, AL. Four million cubic yards of toxic coal ash were scooped up from Harriman, TN, the site of the nation's worst toxic spill, and dumped at the landfill.

Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice
December 19, 2014
Washington, D.C. —

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency today issued long-delayed federal regulations for coal ash, but failed to fix major pollution problems from the disposal of coal ash waste, including contamination of rivers and drinking water supplies.

The Obama Administration’s failure to issue strong ash disposal regulations means that environmental disasters like the Dan River coal ash spill in North Carolina in February, and the massive 2008 ash spill in Kingston, Tennessee, could happen again.

The devastating coal ash spill at Kingston, TN in December 2008.
The devastating coal ash spill at Kingston, TN in December 2008. One billion gallons of toxic coal ash spilled from the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston Fossil Plant, covering 300 acres, destroying homes, poisoning rivers and contaminating coves and residential drinking waters.
Photo courtesy of United Mountain Defense

“Today’s rule doesn’t prevent more tragic spills like the ones we are still trying to clean up in North Carolina and Tennessee. And it won’t stop the slower moving disaster that is unfolding for communities around the country, as leaky coal ash ponds and dumps poison water,” said Earthjustice attorney Lisa Evans.

The new rule fails to phase out the dangerous practice of storing immense quantities of toxic waste in unlined “ponds” behind earthen dams that are often structurally unstable and prone to failure. EPA’s approach effectively lets the utility industry police itself without federal or state oversight.

“While EPA’s coal ash rule takes some long overdue steps to establish minimum national groundwater monitoring and cleanup standards, it relies too heavily on the industry to police itself, ” said Eric Schaeffer, Executive Director of the Environmental Integrity Project. “The devil is in the details, and we will review the regulation closely for loopholes. But regardless of what the rule requires, companies like Duke Energy, First Energy, and TVA have already learned that spills and leaking ash ponds add up to billions of dollars in cleanup costs.”

While the rule does require closure of some inactive ponds, like the one that failed on the Dan River in North Carolina, it only mandates closure of ponds that are located on the site of active facilities.

“This power industry has had half a century or more to clean up its act, but even in the face of huge spills and a terrible record of proven water contamination around the country, it is still dumping ash in huge unlined pits,” said Evans. “These dumps aren’t going away by themselves, and unfortunately under today’s rule, EPA is putting the burden on citizens to get them safely closed.”

The rule requires water quality monitoring and public disclosure of the results, which should help citizens to track damage from dumps and to go to court to force clean-ups. However, communities are understandably concerned that coal plant operators will not reliably identify, report and remedy water contamination and structural risks without independent oversight.

Esther Calhoun stands in the entrance to her church near Uniontown, AL. The coal ash dump sits between Calhoun's home and her church..
Esther Calhoun stands in the entrance to her church near Uniontown, AL. The coal ash dump at the Arrowhead landfill sits between Calhoun's home and her church.
Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice

When she heard about the new regulations, Esther Calhoun, of Uniontown, Ala., who lives near a coal ash dump said: “It seems like the EPA doesn’t give a damn about people.”

Calhoun lives near the Arrowhead landfill in Uniontown, which received four million cubic yards of coal ash fromthe 2008 Kingston disaster.

She believes that monitoring by state or federal agencies is essential to detecting leaks that could harm the health of Uniontown residents left unprotected by the EPA.

“Our people have heart attacks and breathing problems. They’re dealing with this big mountain of coal ash in their face. This is a civil rights issue just as much as an environmental and health one.”

Coal ash is the toxic waste formed from burning coal in power plants to make electricity. It is filled with some of the deadliest toxins known to man, including hazardous chemicals such as arsenic, lead, mercury, and hexavalent chromium. Coal ash—the second largest industrial waste stream in the United States—is linked to the four leading causes of death in the U.S.: heart disease, cancer, respiratory diseases and stroke.

The toxic coal ash turned the Dan River gray for 20 miles east of the North Carolina border in the aftermath of a spill in February 2014.
The toxic coal ash turned the Dan River gray for 20 miles east of the North Carolina border in the aftermath of a spill in February 2014.
Photo courtesy of Waterkeeper Alliance

Unsafe disposal of coal ash into the nation’s more than 1,400 coal ash waste dumps has contaminated more than 200 rivers, lakes, streams and sources of underground drinking water in 37 states. Coal ash, when dumped in unlined lagoons and landfills, often poisons drinking water and kills fish and wildlife.

Earthjustice, and the groups that sued the EPA over its failure to regulate coal ash, are planning to keep up the fight for critical public health and environmental protection. “We had to go to court to force EPA to issue this first-ever coal ash rule, and unfortunately, we will be back in court to force coal plants to clean up their ash dumps and start disposing of their toxic waste safely,” said Evans.

Coal ash regulations were proposed in 2010 following the largest toxic waste spill in U.S. history in Kingston, Tenn., when one billion gallons of coal ash sludge destroyed 300 acres and dozens of homes. But in response to pressure from the coal power industry, EPA delayed finalizing the proposed rule.

Eric Schaeffer, Executive Director of the Environmental Integrity Project, said: “EPA’s coal ash rule is too little and too late. Too little because its standards are minimal, vague, and unenforceable. Too late, because damage from collapsing dikes and leaking ash dumps has accumulated in the absence of common sense rules designed to prevent those disasters.”

In 2012, Earthjustice sued EPA in federal court on behalf of ten public interest groups and an Indian tribe to obtain a court-ordered deadline. The groups involved in the lawsuit include: the Moapa Band of Paiutes (NV),: Appalachian Voices (NC); Chesapeake Climate Action Network (MD); Environmental Integrity Project (D.C., PA); Kentuckians For The Commonwealth (KY); Montana Environmental Information Center (MT); Physicians for Social Responsibility (DC); Prairie Rivers Network (IL); Sierra Club (CA); Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (eight southeast states); and Western North Carolina Alliance (NC),

In 2013, a consent decree was lodged in federal court that set a deadline of December 19, 2014 for EPA’s final rule.

Quotes from Partner Groups

Vickie Simmons, Moapa Band of Paiutes in Nevada
“Our people have been harmed for decades by the toxic dust that blows from coal ash dumps at the Reid Gardner plant. We wanted a far stronger rule.”

Amy Adams, North Carolina Campaign Coordinator, Appalachian Voices
“For the thousands of citizens whose groundwater is no longer safe for consumption due to leaching ponds or whose air is contaminated by fugitive dust, failing to regulate coal ash as hazardous is a slap in the face. We will continue to fight for cleanup of these toxic sites.”

Traci Barkley, Water Resources Scientist, Prairie Rivers Network
“While these rules put forward clean-up and safety standards to protect communities, the EPA is leaving oversight and enforcement almost entirely to the states. Illinois has over 90 aging coal ash pits with coal ash pollutants found in the groundwater near every one. Communities rely on at-risk rivers and groundwater for drinking water, recreation, and business.”

Barbara Gottlieb, Director for Environment & Health at Physicians for Social Responsibility
"It's high time that those communities get adequate protection from coal ash toxics like arsenic and chromium poisoning their water and their air."

Mary Love, Kentuckians For The Commonwealth
“Hundreds of thousands of Kentuckians depend on the Ohio River for their drinking water. Of the 44 coal ash disposal sites nation-wide that the EPA has listed as high hazard, 19 of them sit on the Ohio River or one of its tributaries. As a result, Kentuckians are vulnerable to exposure to toxins from coal ash, especially since state officials do little to protect the public. Current Kentucky law regulates municipal garbage dumps more stringently than it regulates coal ash disposal sites. ”

Anne Hedges, Deputy Director of the Montana Environmental Information Center
“This rule comes far too late to protect the people who rely on groundwater in Colstrip, Montana. We can only hope that this rule will help get the toxins out of their water. Colstrip area ranchers told the state decades ago that the Colstrip ash ponds would leak but no one expected them to hemorrhage toxic water into ground and surface water for decades."

Map: Coal Ash Contaminated Sites & Spills

There have been 208 known cases of contamination and spills. These cases of documented water contamination are likely to be only a small percentage of the coal ash-contaminated sites in the U.S. Most coal ash landfills and ponds do not conduct monitoring, so the majority of water contamination goes undetected.

View Larger Map

Map: High & Significant Hazard Coal Ash Dump Sites

There are 331 High and Significant hazard coal ash ponds in the United States. The National Inventory of Dams hazard potential ratings refer to the potential for loss of life or damage if there is a dam failure. Coal ash dams are usually built from a combination of soil and ash and often impound millions of tons of toxic coal ash and wastewater. The majority are over 40 years old, and most do not have monitoring to detect leaks of toxic pollutants.

View Larger Map

Contacts

Keith Rushing, Earthjustice, (202) 797-5236; (757) 897-2147

Tom Pelton, Environmental Integrity Project, (202) 888-2703; (443) 510-2574

About Earthjustice

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.