Insider Briefing: Coal’s Poisonous Legacy

Earthjustice attorneys and our client and partner in litigation, Prairie River Network discuss cleaning up coal ash contaminating groundwater in Illinois and across America.

Coal ash pollution widespread in groundwater.
A conversation about cleaning up coal ash contaminating groundwater across America.

“Every coal ash cleanup that’s been done right in my experience has happened because people in the community made their voices heard.”

A new study by the Environmental Integrity Project, with assistance from Earthjustice, shows that groundwater near 91% of U.S. coal-fired power plants where industry has reported monitoring data contains unsafe levels of toxic pollutants, including arsenic, lead, and mercury. The Trump administration is doing all it can to undermine protections against this dangerous menace, but Earthjustice is partnering with groups across the country to force coal ash polluters to clean up their toxic mess.

This briefing, a conversation on June 6 with Earthjustice supporters, was moderated by Daveon Coleman and includes a discussion with Earthjustice Coal Program staff and Andrew Rehn from Praire Rivers Network.

Listen to the conversation:

Conversation Highlights


Daveon Coleman:

Andrew Rehn is a Water Resources Engineer with Prairie Rivers Network, our client and partner in litigation over Coal Ash pollution in the Illinois Vermillion River.

Jenny Cassel is an Earthjustice Coal Ash Project attorney based in Chicago. Prior to joining Earthjustice, Jenny worked as a staff attorney for the Environmental Law and Policy Center where she brought environmental suits and permit challenges against numerous coal-fired power plants and led negotiations of a comprehensive protecting fracking law in Illinois.

Lisa Evans is our Senior Counsel for Earthjustice who’s based in Massachusetts. Lisa has advocacy and litigation experience spanning over 25 years and specializes in hazardous waste law and has been actively engaging in coal ash work for over a decade.

What is coal ash and what is the problem?

Lisa Evans:

Many of the components of coal ash are harmful to human health.

Coal ash is a solid waste that’s generated by coal burning power plants and this ash contains all the toxic elements naturally found in coal which are concentrated when the coal is burned. The waste contains a deadly brew of carcinogens, neurotoxins, and other poisons and these include arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury, selenium, radium, and more. It’s a virtual alphabet soup of toxic substances that harm every major organ in the human body. The substances cause cancer, kidney disease, reproductive harm, and damage the nervous system — especially in children.

Why is coal ash causing such problems today? Coal ash has historically been dumped almost entirely without safeguards. Unlike other toxic waste in the U.S., Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) did not regulate the disposal of coal ash until 2015 so industry dumped the waste in the cheapest way possible which was also the most dangerous way.

At the start, they built enormous coal ash dams where they placed coal ash with water in quantities that exceeded tens of millions of tons and often the dams were numerous stories high — these dams still exist. Utilities also dumped coal ash dry into landfills which were unlined and often in contact with underlying groundwater.

Utilities also dumped coal ash in any pit that was convenient to the plan which includes quarries and surface mines so as a result we have about 1,400 coal ash dumps throughout the United States, most of which have been very poorly constructed and not properly maintained. So the coal ash problem is huge because coal ash is one of the largest industrial wastes in the world. The U.S. has been burning coal since the 1880s and we still burn more than one billion tons a year. This results in about 110 million tons of coal ash being generated every year, enough to fill train cars from New York to Melbourne.

As we got better at controlling pollutants at coal power plant stacks and capturing metals and particulates, those toxic substances also went in coal ash, so we’ve been growing our volume and toxicity but not taking care of its disposal.

The harm caused by coal ash is from four major threats caused by coal ash ponds and landfills:

1.   Threat of catastrophic failure. This is what happened at the TVA Kingston Plant in Tennessee in 2008 where a wall collapsed on a coal ash dam releasing over one billion gallons of toxic sludge, flooding 300 acres, and destroying a riverfront community.

Another catastrophic failure occurred in 2014 on the Dan River when a Duke Energy plant flooded over 70 miles of the Dan River from North Carolina to Virginia with toxic sludge.

2.   Slow leaching of coal ash into the underlying groundwater. This groundwater — when poisoned — can flow to drinking water wells and certainly to lakes, rivers, and streams.

3.   Direct discharges. Direct discharges from these large coal ash impoundments into our lakes and rivers.

4.   Dust from coal ash at disposal sites can flow into nearby communities. That dust can harm those communities through the ingestion of particulates and metals. While these dump sites occur all across the United States, low-income communities and communities of color are disproportionately harmed because of the location of the dump sites.

So in sum, coal is not only the worst energy in terms of its contribution to climate change, it is also the worst because it creates a huge toxic waste that remains hazardous to health and the environment forever.

The fight to protect the Vermillion River from coal ash pollution.

Andrew Rehn:

The Middle Fork of the Vermillion River is a really special river in East Central Illinois. It’s the only national scenic river in Illinois and that’s a designation given to rivers that are exceptionally beautiful, wild, and have historic relevance. If you live in East Central Illinois, it might surprise you to learn. It’s mostly corn everywhere and when you go and visit the Middle Fork, you escape from the endless corn fields and drive down or hike down into this valley. When you’re floating in the river, it’s just beautiful trees and lots of endangered and wild animals around. There are bald eagles that frequently hunt the river. You can see otters, although I haven’t myself seen them. It’s really a special place in East Central Illinois and Prairie Rivers Network — the organization I work for — and our members have a long history of protecting this river.

If it was not for some of our members’ hard work years ago, it would never have been a national scenic river, it would’ve been a lake. The whole thing was once proposed to be dammed and that really would have been a tragedy because it would have destroyed this beautiful river and they would’ve buried a bunch of coal ash under water by creating that dam because along the Middle Fork river is a closed power station called the Vermillion Power Station.

Throughout the operating life of the power station, they dumped coal ash into the floodplain of the river. Right next to where the river flows, they built their coal ash impoundments and started filling them. Over the course of almost 60 years, they put 3.3 million cubic yards of coal ash into the floodplain. That coal ash sits there and not only does it get rained on but the regional groundwater — that’s just below our feet — saturates that coal ash and flows toward the river.

If you go canoe or kayak the Middle Fork — which if you live in East Central Illinois I highly recommend — you’ll pass these impoundments and you’ll see the riverbank stained orange and it looks like an oily sheen. That was our hallmark indication of a problem here. That orange is oxidate of iron. It made us really take a closer look and what we discovered is that there is groundwater continually seeping into the Middle Fork from these coal ash ponds.

What makes this situation worse is that the Middle Fork is a very actively meandering river which moves back and forth across its floodplain. Part of the national scenic river designation is that its rivers are free flowing and active, so the Middle Fork has been eroding toward these coal ash ponds and threatening to destabilize the ponds themselves. Then we’ll have a coal ash spill into the Middle Fork, potentially permanently ruining our national scenic river.

We’ve been engaged in this for a long time and we’ve been working with the regulatory agencies trying to get some solution here. We worked for years that way and really didn’t get anywhere. We were stuck. We didn’t have the capacity to bring anything like a lawsuit to really move the project forward. Then we formed this partnership with Earthjustice and they really changed everything. Having Earthjustice come in and be able to provide the legal support to our on–the-ground efforts has really made a big difference not just in Vermillion and the Middle Fork but for the fight across the state.

Jennifer Cassel:

I would say the gratitude and the excitement is mutual. It’s been thrilling for Earthjustice as we expand our presence in Illinois and in the Midwest to be able to work with partners like Prairie Rivers Network that have such an amazing long history working to protect rivers like the Vermillion, the Middle Fork, and others. It really has been an eye opening experience.

The bright orange, purplish metallic sheen of the coal ash pollution that is flowing into the Middle Fork of the river is really glaring and drastic when you canoe or kayak down that river. We jumped in with both feet at Earthjustice. We brought a federal lawsuit alleging violations of the Clean Water Act, we brought a state lawsuit alleging violations of state groundwater protection and surface water protection requirements. And we are working with Prairie Rivers Network and other organizations to fight back against a proposal for a massive rock wall that would cover up the pollution but would also create a glaring problem on the river, changing what is right now — other than the coal ash pollution — a really beautiful cliff and tree scenery, into a industrial-looking wall which would block the view to the pollution but would not actually stop the pollution. It would just be hidden behind there. So we’re working with our partners from that angle as well to make sure that we don’t end up creating a “solution” that actually causes another major problem and destroys the beautiful scenery of the river. The scenery and the ecology of the river is what we’re all trying to protect.

The Vermillion River work that Earthjustice and Prairie Rivers Network and others have engaged in has really been the platform for other broader work that we’ve been working on in Illinois as well — with the Vermillion coal ash pollution truly being a poster child for the problem. You can’t go near the site and not see vividly just how much and how jarring this pollution is. Because of that, we’ve been able to get the attention of many Illinois legislators, including Scott Bennett, who’s the State Senator for that district, as well as Carol Ammons, who’s the state representative of nearby Champaign. And we were able to use the concern about the Middle Fork — thanks to amazing work by groups like Prairie Rivers Network taking a lead role in that, along with Earthjustice, and a number of other Illinois organizations — to get a sweeping state law passed to fill in some gaps where the federal rules are simply not doing enough.

Right now, Senate Bill 9 in Illinois has been passed by both the Senate and the House and it merely awaits the signature of the governor and it provides Financial Assurance, meaning that companies that cause pollution are going to have to be on the hook for money to close these sites properly, and to clean them up. It also ensures lots of transparency and public participation to make sure that the communities that are affected by this pollution have a say in the cleanup and closure process to make sure that this is done right because these are heavy metals — they stay in waterways for centuries, literally. So we’re really excited to have not only protection that have to be at least as protective as the federal requirements in this law but also funding and participation mandates, that will make sure we get a voice in the process.

How Earthjustice is working with our partners to fight coal ash in other states and at the national level.

Jennifer Cassel:

Our work on this is not at all limited to Illinois. We are working with partner groups in Oklahoma, in Indiana, in Kentucky, in Puerto Rico, and a number of other states to really hit home and highlight the danger that coal ash presents to communities in those states.

In Oklahoma, for example, U.S. EPA approved the first ever proposal to transfer authority to regulate coal ash sites to the state of Oklahoma. There was a law passed at the end of 2016 that allowed states to apply for approval to transfer that oversight as long as the program was at least as protective as the federal requirements. We think that they left a lot to be desired and a lot to be required in that Oklahoma proposal to regulate coal ash there. We know that that state has been really quite negligent in the past. There’s a community called Bokoshe, Oklahoma that has been absolutely devastated by coal ash pollution there and we and our partners are very concerned that that will continue to be destroying Oklahoma if Oklahoma’s delegation of authority continues.

In Indiana, we’re working with a number of partners on the ground to try to ensure that the closure plan for a number of the coal ash impoundments there are safe. We know that in Indiana there are many coal ash impoundments — big old pits filled with water and coal ash where the ash is literally soaking in groundwater because there simply isn’t any land separating the groundwater from the coal ash or if there is it’s only dry for a small part of the year and it’s saturated the remainder of the year. So we’re working with partners, we’re also working with the Indiana Department of Environmental Management to do our best to advocate for and make sure that these coal ash pits are not left soaking in groundwater where their metals can leach out for centuries.

We’re also engaged in a lawsuit in Kentucky where there is coal ash that has been poisoning fish in a drinking water lake. In Kentucky at the E.W. Brown site. I know a lot of folks fish there. That litigation is under way because of the imminence of substantial endangerment that that pollution is posing to folks in that area.

We’re also working in an exciting collaboration with some partners in Puerto Rico where there has been a multiple-story-high coal ash pile that has been blowing onto nearby communities for decades and where the coal ash has been simply spread around and really caused terrible concentrations of pollution throughout that southeast area of the island.

Lisa Evans:

On the national level, we’ve had quite a wild ride and it’s been many years that we’ve been fighting for coal ash protection. Taking us back to 2008, that was the year of the largest toxic waste spill in U.S. history — the collapse of the coal ash dam in Tenessee that made the Obama administration pledge in 2009 to start and finish a coal ash rule. The administration never did that so our initial suit on a national level was to sue the Obama administration for the rule. Fortunately, we were successful and in 2015, the Obama administration promulgated the first coal ash regulation.

While that rule was a big step forward, it wasn’t good enough so we sued the Obama administration to strengthen that rule and get more protection for communities and for the environment.

Then came the election of 2016. After that disaster, industry knew that it had a golden opportunity to persuade the Trump administration to completely gut the rule and Scott Pruitt predictably took his marching orders from industry. Industry filed two rule making petitions — he saw that as his work plan and he proposed a severe gutting of the coal ash rule in 2018. But as everything Scott Pruitt has ever done, it was rushed, ill-conceived, and blatantly illegal so we used that last tag as a jumping off point for our comments. We filed voluminous comments. We galvanized our allies and more than 50,000 comments went in from the public opposing that rule and we were able, at least temporarily, to forestall that sweeping gutting of the coal ash rule.

Then came an unexpected and wonderful development. Our suit against the Obama administration was decided in the D.C. Court of Appeals. They agreed with us that the Obama rule was not sufficiently protective and they ordered EPA to strengthen the ruling in some very significant ways. So where we are now is, we have a court which says that EPA has to strengthen the rule and we have an EPA that is doing favors for the coal industry and electric utilities in trying to get rid of it wholesale.

We have a tough fight ahead of us for sure. Recently, we met with EPA and got some very bad news — we learned that there’s going to be no fewer than five rules pertaining to coal ash in July. Whether the EPA meets that deadline we don’t know but they are planning in July to propose five rules that will weaken the current protections.

We are now gearing up to launch a fight against those proposals. We will fight each and every one and our strategy is threefold:

1.   We will get the word out. Without getting any substance of what these rules will be, we will treat each rule the same and launch first and alarm far and wide. We want to let the public know that the Trump administration is protecting the coal industry at the expense of the health and environment of the public. We will get this word out through our stories, through the press, and we will simplify the message so that people know exactly what the administration is doing.

2.   We will point out the illegalities. As we did in 2008, we will respond vigorously to each proposal. We will point out the illegalities of each of these proposals in our comments. We will reach out to our allies to do the same and promote the comment periods and the public hearings. And we will fight for additional public hearings so that people in affected communities can have the opportunity to testify.

3.   We will again fight back in the courtroom. Each of these separate proposals are likely to go final. There’s an election coming and that’s why this swell of rulemaking is coming, so we will fight back in the courthouse against each and every one of these proposals once it gets final. But for sure we are going to have our hands full defending the Obama rule and forestalling disaster in the national rule.

A wealth of data was made available about groundwater contamination following the Obama rule.

Lisa Evans:

For the first time, groundwater monitoring data was publicly available for hundreds of coal plants. For years we have claimed that coal plants were contaminating groundwater but the 2015 Obama rule required that every regulated coal plant install groundwater monitoring systems, test groundwater, and then publicly post the findings. Finally in 2019, we were able to prove the contamination, quantify it, and map it. Since the Trump EPA refused to do this, we took it on. In partnership with Environmental Integrity Project (EIP), we went through the lengthy exercise of gathering all the data from more than 4,600 monitoring wells at 265 plants. The process was made very difficult because industry attempted to hide the data in reports that were over 2,000 pages long but we completed the task and last March published our report.

Our report concludes that 91% of coal plants reporting data, located in 39 states, are contaminating groundwater with unsafe levels of toxic pollutants. Most plants are leaking at least four, not just one toxic pollutant at one or two orders of magnitude above unsafe levels. The majority of plants have contaminated groundwater with arsenic which can impair the brains of developing children and causes cancer. In addition 60% of the plants have unsafe levels of lithium, a chemical associated with neurological damage. Other chemicals commonly found in combination in the contaminated groundwater are cobalt, boron, molybdenum, and radium.

Lastly, nearly all coal ash ponds, more than 95%, are unlined and most are built with ash beneath the water table or within 5 feet of it. Thus our report contains contamination that is continuing and is likely getting worse over time. In the report, we also identified a ‘top ten’ of dirty sites and I think it’s noteworthy to note that both are called ‘Allen’. The Duke Energy’s Allen plant near Charlotte, North Carolina, is contaminating water with concentrations of cobalt over 500 times the safe limit.

At the TVA Allen Fossil Plant in Memphis, Tennessee, that plant is contaminating groundwater with arsenic at 350 times the safe level and lead at four times the safe level and that plant is endangering the drinking water of the city of Memphis.

In our national report, any reader can look up any of the 265 plants and find out exactly how badly the groundwater is contaminated. Our goal is to make the data available to all, especially someone who lives near one of those plants. In conjunction with the report, we built a web page called Coal Ash Contaminates Our Lives where anyone can find their local plant and explore a wealth of information related to the coal ash spreads. We’re devoting a lot of time and effort to educate the public because the coal ash rule is written as a self-implementing rule. This means that utilities have the obligation to follow the rule but that states are not required to enforce it and we know that EPA has no interest, so this leaves it up to communities themselves to ensure that the industries are monitoring, reporting, and most importantly closing and cleaning up their dirty sites.

What happens now that we know that almost all coal plants have contaminated groundwater? This next step mandated by the coal ash rule is incredibly important. The rule requires that coal plants stop their leaks and clean up groundwater to original conditions. According to the rule, over 80 plants are currently required to begin these cleanup actions and the number grows weekly. But as I mentioned there’s little to no oversight over these mandated cleanups. Therefore Earthjustice has started a brand new initiative. We know that without a strong push from local community, these industry designed cleanups will not be sufficient. Industry left to its own devices will move it as slowly as possible and do as little as possible. Every coal ash cleanup that’s been done right in my experience has happened because people in the community made their voices heard.

Thus we are developing a toolkit for allies. The toolkit will provide communities with information about the rule’s requirements for cleanup and tips to participate in the cleanup process. The toolkit explains the steps that the polluter must take to comply with federal cleanup requirements and explains exactly how the community can insert themselves into the process. We’re going to be rolling out that toolkit and providing trainings on how to use it. This is not a substitute for regulatory oversight but we are confident that we’ll increase the strength of engagement of local communities. Earthjustice needs to be involved because groundwater contamination, that we know exists at 91% of coal plants, can spread to drinking water and to nearby lakes, streams, and rivers. Thus effective cleanups mandated by the coal ash rule must be initiated as quickly as possible and we want to work with communities to make that happen.

How Prairie Rivers Network used the Illinois groundwater monitoring report.

Andrew Rehn:

Using the same data and the same groups, Prairie Rivers Networks, Earthjustice, the Environmental Integrity Project, and Sierra Club put out a report taking the data for Illinois out of this big national dataset. We found that 22 out of the 24 power plants had contaminated groundwater above safe drinking water levels or Illinois groundwater standard levels (because we have our own groundwater standards).

We showed that it was a widespread impact. We pulled all of that data together and put it in the report site by site so anybody who wanted to look up their own site could see it. And while we were developing this report, we were also engaging with communities and reaching out, talking to folks who lived in these impacted communities, and bringing them all together to have a conversation about: What do they want to see? What do they think needs to be done? Getting that community input. As we moved to launch this report, the report didn’t just bring science and say, ‘look here’s all the information,’ but it also made a call to action — it included what Illinois needs to do to solve the coal ash problem and laid out values for what a coal ash legislation could look like. At our release of this report, we had community leaders from across the states speaking, telling the press in Springfield, our capital, about why this matters to them. We also had legislators speaking saying, ‘hey, when we come back and get into session we should do something on coal ash.”

This groundwater report became the basis for what became Senate Bill 9, the Coal Ash Pollution Prevention Act. It was our launching point of both the community engagement but also the scientific background of why the problem is clear and action needs to be taken now. Some legislators had put out a need to get a task force put together but because we had the report, we could say, “no, we need to take action now.” Working together really helped establish that push and brought us to where we are now – being one of the few states that has legislation passed that really is major coal ash protection. The groundwater report was really important to that process.

What makes you hopeful about this fight and what do you want communities to know about it?

Andrew Rehn:

What makes me most hopeful and I think it’s really what’s been powerful for our work is working in coalition. As I’ve seen this coalition on coal ash that we have developed in Illinois, it’s really been almost night and day in terms of the progress that we’ve made as we started working together and combining all of our respective expertise. Earthjustice bringing the excellent legal perspective, the legal mind. Prairie Rivers Network has technical background, working with grass-roots partners and communities who are actually being impacted, folks who know how to work Springfield, where our legislator is and talk to legislators. That coalition coming together is what makes me hopeful for being able to really make impact, make change happen, and really how effective we can be when we work in coalition.

Jennifer Cassel:

I have really been heartened over the course of the last year in this process. An underlying theme of that, is that despite all the fight in the national press about what is a fact and whether a fact matters, what we’re seeing on the ground is that where we are seeing actual data, actual facts confirming what we’ve known this whole time — that coal ash is truly devastating our water ways, is poisoning groundwater all around the country wherever there is coal ash. When we present that factual information — this data that’s been collected — to courts, to legislators, they recognize the problem and they’re willing to act on it. That has really crossed the political spectrum.

We’ve had decisions out of the 5th Circuit that have upheld our argument saying that coal ash pollution from surface impoundments need to be better addressed because it is posing serious problems. The decision last August from the D.C. circuit agreeing with Earthjustice and our partners’ arguments that the Obama coal ash rule in fact wasn’t strong enough, and then this Illinois legislation. That Illinois groundwater pollution report was a jumping off point for us. It’s exciting to know that facts do still matter in our world today.

Lisa Evans:

I’d second what Andrew and Jenny said and in addition I would say two things. I would again place emphasis on our big win in the Federal Court of Appeals last summer because as a result we have to remember and be heartened by the fact that EPA has the strength and the rule in significant ways and this decision is like a flashing warning sign that is telling EPA that its authority to weaken the coal ash rule has limits. The court ruling as well as the strength of the underlying statute should reduce the amount of long-term damage that the Trump administration can do and I have to keep telling myself that. We can and will see additional attempts to weaken the rule.

Secondly, I’m also hopeful because I’ve worked with wonderful partners in this fight. This includes Andrew in Illinois but it also includes group from Alaska to Indiana to Puerto Rico and working with those on the frontline allows us to follow these lawsuits and to elevate their stories. While their voices might not be heard by the current EPA, they are certainly heard in Congress and state houses, state agencies, and in the press.

Experience has told us that safe closures and cleanup can be accomplished if we do work together. We’ve seen big victories in North Carolina and in Virginia and I think we’re looking at an upcoming one in Illinois thanks to Jenny, to Andrew, and to the whole crew working on that effort. While the administration has been planting land mines, we are forging new alliances, finding new paths, finding new tools, and definitely not giving up.

Is there a permanent solution to the coal ash problem? Can we dispose of it for good in a safe way?

Lisa Evans:

While I’m not an engineer, I think I can give some insights. Some coal ashes can be recycled into concrete. This is primarily fly ash that can be substituted for portland cement concrete. EPA has studied this and if we believe the Obama EPA, that is a safer place for coal ash than any kind of land disposal. I think that the incorporation of the ash into concrete is a good idea. Of course there has to be attention to the safety of the workers and during transportation of the ash but in general that is probably a better solution than land disposal.

As for land disposal, we have a rule that we say here which is ‘high and dry.’ If you have a modern-engineered landfill which have all of the safeguards that are not new, that are tried and true, that include a liner, leachate collection, and monitoring wells, and you place that landfill high above the groundwater, that should be a sufficient solution for coal ash. Landfills have to be monitored and they should be monitored in perpetuity because landfills do leak but with the leachate detection system and the monitoring wells encasing this in a landfill, keeping it above the groundwater should be the solution to the remaining coal ash that we generate in this country before we shift to renewables.

Jennifer Cassel:

While certainly I agree that there are ways that are safer than others to dispose of coal ash, there has to be so much care and so many protective requirements and monitoring mandates that go into ensuring this coal ash hasn’t leached out or blow away toxic chemicals, basically forever, that realistically the best way to address the problem is to stop creating more of this. It’s expensive to treat properly. It’s a lot of effort and a lot of requirements in order to keep even relatively safe. So the best thing we can do is really move away from the production of this toxic mess and move as quickly as we can toward more renewable energy sources.

Why were the authorities going to dam the Middle Fork of the Vermillion River?

Andrew Rehn:

The Middle Fork was going to be dammed and the proposal was in the 70s when rivers were being dammed everywhere and I believe it was for recreation and then water supply. Probably no one was thinking about the coal ash at the time and had that been dammed it would have been a bunch of coal ash in the water supply lake. Some people, before Prairie Rivers Network actually even existed, stopped that dam and then went on to get the river to be nationally designated as a national scenic river to try to create a permanent protection. Maybe at the time they thought the fight was over but the coal ash has come now into the spotlight.

We’re realizing that protecting a river takes continual effort and you have to be ever vigilant. The coal ash is the latest battle to protect the Middle Fork that maybe started back when they initially proposed the dam in the 70s and I can’t speak to the efforts in the 70s more than to say it was a heroic effort that involved thousands of signatures to get the river designated and to stop the dam from being made.

What is the cost to clean up coal ash and what are we proposing governments do to help absorb some of the cost?

Lisa Evans:

This is a very difficult question and maybe has some complexities that we won’t be able to go into on this call. In general, the person who made the mess — the kindergarten rule — needs to clean up the mess so utilities should be on the hook for the cost of coal ash clean up. They should not fall either to taxpayers on the federal or the state levels or, for the most part, on ratepayers.

The utility industry has complexity in its regulation. It differs from state to state. We have seen states where the coal ash cleanup is going to be absorbed into the rate which means the public pays and that will increase the cost for the consumer. We’ve also seen recently in North Carolina where the governor says that the utility has to pay for the cleanup because it was their negligence and their poor operating practices that caused the problem.

I tend to follow in the latter category of opinion. Coal companies knew how to dispose of the waste safely. There was 19th century technology that could’ve kept communities safe and water clean which the utilities chose not to use because it was more expensive than just dumping the ash so I believe that it’s utility, their shareholders, that should bear the burden. That said, in many cases, the cost of cleanup, while it’s detested by the ratepayers, spread over the number of ratepayers that are usually involved, it’s not going to break the bank. If the costs are routinely going to be passed onto ratepayers, we do want to emphasize that a full cleanup and a permanent cleanup is worthwhile so that if temporarily, rates raise by a dollar or so a month, this is what is necessary in order to keep future generations safe from coal ash contamination.

Where can we find a map of all of the coal ash sites, with their toxicities, and remediation approaches?

Daveon Coleman:

Mapping the Coal Ash Contamination will lead you directly to a map that shows all of the information about the disposal and groundwater monitoring reports that we have from the last set of data that was released through the EPA through utilities. It also tracks the remediation approaches that are happening. A lot of the proposed cleanups at these sites will be there so that you can track them in your own neighborhood. This is also where our toolkit can be found to be able to do that.

Prairie Rivers Network in coalition was a lot of Illinois partners, also have maps that you can visit on their websites to find information locally as well as our partner Environmental Integrity Project.

Is Tennessee one of the states that opted for state oversight? Is that related to the coal mining primacy act that the state of Tennessee passed?

Lisa Evans:

Tennessee has to date not opted for primacy, in other words, have not opted to submit an application to EPA for approval to run its own coal ash program. The interesting thing about Tennessee is that after the biggest toxic waste disaster, which was the Kingston Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) disaster, there was absolutely no response on the part of the Tennessee state legislature, the Tennessee agencies, or the governor to strengthen the coal ash disposal regulations. At that time there were no federal regulations, so it was really stunning that Tennessee did absolutely nothing in the aftermath of that disaster. In fact, the only thing I know about them doing was trying to loosen up the regulations, particularly on selenium, a primary coal ash contaminant, so that there might be less cleanup based on that chemical. Whether in the future we see Tennessee coming forward and wanting its own program is a question but so far they’ve done a far less than stellar job in response to the TVA spill. That’s in direct contrast with North Carolina which established its own coal ash management act, a state program that’s in some ways much more stringent than the federal rule in response to the large spill that occurred there in 2014. All states are handling it a little differently. We’ll have to see what we find from Tennessee.

What more can our supporters do to make their voices heard?

Andrew Rehn:

I really feel like the community participation is what has made our efforts on Senate Bill 9, the Coal Ash Pollution Prevention Act in Illinois, so successful and that we made sure that everything we were working on was going back to those communities and that their voices were part of the conversation.

Connecting with your local groups, finding out who’s working on coal ash, and how you can be connected especially if you live in an impacted community is really important. And even if you don’t, reaching out to your representative, because a lot of folks voted for this bill who didn’t have coal ash in their district and that’s because they had members in their district telling them this is important and you should vote for it.

Jennifer Cassel:

Going back to my earlier theme of facts matter, I think one of the benefits that we do have from the 2015 coal ash bill is really this wide breadth of information about what coal ash is actually doing to our waters, to our communities, where it’s located, which ash ponds are directly in groundwater, are unlined, things like that. Earthjustice, Prairie Rivers Network, and Environmental Integrity Project among others have really taken a lot of steps to make that information as accessible as possible to folks, so I would say arm yourself with information. Go to our website. Go to Prairie Rivers Network website if you live in Illinois, or EIP’s website. Find out where these locations are. Take a look at what kind of poison they’re putting into your local groundwater or surface water body and then join up with the other folks and organizations. Or if there are no folks and organizations in your area, gather together with other people. Call attention to the problem because really only with a lot of voices united are we going to be able to make sure that these toxic sites are addressed properly.

Lisa Evans:

I would again reiterate that we could really use your help on this upcoming slew of bad Trump proposals so I would ask people to watch our website. There you can not only get information on your local site and we try to keep that updated with all the information — the contamination at the site, whether that site’s in compliance, and whether the plant is going to be advancing into closing or cleanup dumps — but also, this summer, we will have information on the five proposed rules that are coming down the pike and you will have opportunities to add your comments, to perhaps attend the public hearing, and we really need your voices. We want to make sure that the Trump administration and everyone else is more likely to do things for us and to stand up for us. We want to make sure that we are gathering those voices and that people in power know that what the Trump administration is doing is wrong and that the public doesn’t like it. So please watch our website. If you have any comments, there’s also space on the website. If you need help, if you want to join a group, if you want to join our coal ash listserve and learn even more about coal ash, please send us a message and we will definitely be responsive to anybody who wants to get further involved.

Daveon Coleman:

On top of visiting our coal ash map, we’ll have petitions and potential actions that people can take if they visit our action center. And throughout the rest of this fight, there will be opportunities for you to sign petitions, to make your voice heard, to reach out to senators and representatives at the state and national level depending on the issue. So write letters to your editor, visit our website, make your voices heard. That’s the best way in which people can really join the fight here.

This text is edited and condensed from the audio recording.
It may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future.