We've Been Saying This for Years: Coal Ash is Dangerous!

31 new water contamination sites across 14 states

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During a tele-press conference today discussing a new report on coal ash sites, Charleston Gazette reporter Ken Ward asked environmental advocates whether West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin was correct in asserting that the U.S. EPA was "jumping to classify coal ash" as a hazardous waste. Earthjustice’s Lisa Evans was quick to discredit this assertion.

"That’s a patently absurd concept," she stated. Manchin is "ignoring science and ignoring concern for public health."

The EPA has been deliberating for 30 years on the issue of regulating coal ash as a hazardous waste and the evidence is overwhelming and mounting that this substance is a threat to public health.

We teamed with the Environmental Integrity Project to pull together a report identifying 31 additional coal-ash water contamination sites in 14 states, which, when added to the 70 in the EPA’s justification for the pending rule, brings the total of coal-fired power plant waste storage sites with poisoned water to 102. The data shows arsenic and other toxic metals levels in contaminated water at some coal-ash disposal sites at up to 145 times the federally permissible levels.

There’s also an environmental justice angle to all this as well: the analysis finds that low-income communities shoulder a disproportionate burden from the health risks caused by the disposal of coal ash waste. This waste is increasingly being disposed in unregulated sites, often in direct contact with groundwater.

Other highlights of the report: at least 26 of these 31 sites report contamination that exceeds one or more primary drinking standards, 25 of the 31 sites are STILL active disposal sites and at 15 of these 31 sites, contamination has already migrated offsite at levels that exceed drinking water or surface water quality standards. The remaining 16 sites show evidence of severe onsite pollution.

This is just a snippet of the key findings from the report, but enough evidence to demonstrate the fact that coal ash waste is flat-out dangerous.

Yet, EPA continues to drag its heels. After the December 2008 coal ash spill, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson pledged that the agency was going to introduce the first-ever federal regulations for coal ash ponds by December 2009. But then, just days before the one-year anniversary of that tragedy, EPA announced it was not going to make the deadline and wasn’t exactly sure when these regulations would come out.

In the meantime, we learned that lobbyists for polluters had met with White House and other government officials on the coal ash issue an unprecedented 36 times in the previous three months (or about once every three days). They continue to pressure EPA and others to back down on important public health and environmental safeguards against coal ash contamination.

Last week, after my colleague Jared Saylor dug through a new EPA website, we discovered the agency’s plans to issue this rule in April 2010. This is a long time coming. I’ll borrow some words from Lisa Evans to make my next point:

Every month of delay means more waste is irresponsibly dumped and each day, more poison leaks from our fleet of grossly inadequate ponds and pits. The rule may be stuck in Washington, but the flow of toxic chemicals continues unabated.


Raviya was a press secretary at Earthjustice in the Washington, D.C. office from 2008 to 2014, working on issues including federal rulemakings, energy efficiency laws and coal ash pollution.

Earthjustice’s Washington, D.C., office works at the federal level to prevent air and water pollution, combat climate change, and protect natural areas. We also work with communities in the Mid-Atlantic region and elsewhere to address severe local environmental health problems, including exposures to dangerous air contaminants in toxic hot spots, sewage backups and overflows, chemical disasters, and contamination of drinking water. The D.C. office has been in operation since 1978.