EPA Data Reveal Far Reach of Toxic Coal Ash Threats

Details from 584 coal ash sites in 35 states finally released; public health at risk


Jared Saylor, Earthjustice, (202) 667-4500, ext. 213

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has just unveiled information to environmental groups about America’s toxic coal ash dumps after months of data collection and inquiry. The groups, after a Freedom of Information Act request, discovered late last Friday that there are 584 coal ash dump sites across the country — almost twice as many as previously identified. These sites pose significant cancer and health risks that so far have gone unchecked.

The EPA data note ownership, location, hazard potential, year commissioned, type and quantity of coal combustion waste disposed, dates of the last regulatory or company assessment, and in some instances whether an unregulated discharge of coal ash had occurred. Some critical data were not included because companies claimed the data as "Confidential Business Information."

States with coal ash sites included in the list are: Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Mississippi, Montana, North Carolina, North Dakota, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Wisconsin, West Virginia, and Wyoming.

"There is no lingering doubt, these coal ash dumps are dangerous and must be regulated immediately," said Lisa Evans, an attorney at Earthjustice. "The EPA list provides a clear view of the substantial extent of the threat. Now the agency needs to take the next step and ensure that communities are informed and protected against the possibility of another TVA-like tragedy."

On March 9, the EPA sent letters to hundreds of power generating facilities requesting information about coal ash surface impoundments. The letters were in response to the disaster that occurred on December 22, 2008, at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston Fossil Plant in Harriman, TN. Over 1 billion gallons of coal ash sludge flooded 300 acres in and near the Emory River when a dike at a coal ash pond collapsed, destroying homes and property and poisoning surrounding waters and wildlife.

"Recovery from this massive spill will take years, and the price tag for the clean up continues to grow," said Lyndsay Moseley, Sierra Club representative and Tennessee native. "It was a stark reminder that coal is not clean or cheap, and this information should prompt improved safety practices and regulation of coal ash sites across the country."

The data released last Friday reveal the problems are much more widespread than EPA previously thought. The wet disposal of coal ash and affect communities in 35 states, with concentrations of dangerous dumps in the Midwest, Appalachia, Intermountain West and Southeast. The data reveal that the majority of dump sites are over three decades old — raising questions about the structural integrity of their dams and whether the waste ponds are adequately lined. Most older dump sites are not lined to prevent the migration of harmful chemicals to drinking water. The data reveal also that regulatory inspections of these dams by state and federal agencies are infrequent or non-existent.

EPA’s data also indicate that many of the wet dumps are very large, with over a hundred exceeding 50 acres, including numerous sites comprising several hundred acres. Furthermore the largest dumps tend to be the older sites with the least amount of protection. The problems are likely underestimated by the present data set because companies like Duke Energy, Alabama Power, Georgia Power and Progress Energy have withheld information on 74 dump sites, including some of the largest dump sites in the U.S, claiming the information is "confidential business information."

"Some utilities — notably the Duke and Southern Companies — are hiding the ball, withholding data on their ash ponds that their competitors have already provided to EPA," said Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project. "Let’s hope that EPA’s enforcement program puts a stop to these bogus claims of ‘confidentiality,’ and compels the disclosure of data that companies are required to report."

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson has said the agency is developing rules to govern disposal and storage of coal ash, and expects a proposal by the end of this year. Coal ash sites contain harmful levels of arsenic, lead, mercury and other toxins, which can leach out, slowly contaminating drinking water sources. Recently the EPA identified 49 "high hazard" sites, whose failure would be likely to cause loss of life, after an information request by Earthjustice, Sierra Club and EIP. These sites had been deemed by the Department of Homeland Security to pose such a threat to nearby communities that they revealing their location had been deemed a national security risk.

"This is a wake up call to the EPA to regulate coal ash as a hazardous waste and protect our health and environment," Evans said. "Communities have a right to know the dangers posed by these largely unlined, unmonitored, and uninspected impoundments. Increased cancer risks, poisoned drinking water supplies, the possibility of a lingering threat for decades all mean that the EPA must regulate coal ash as hazardous waste to ensure that all communities are protected."

But despite the obvious threats posed by coal ash dumps, 25 senators (nine Democrats and 16 Republicans) signed a letter supporting federal regulation that would let the utility companies off the hook.

"Research has made it clear that coal ash is becoming increasingly toxic. In fact the cancer risk of people living near some coal ash sites is a staggering 1 in 50," said Mary Anne Hitt, Deputy Director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign. "Despite those chilling statistics, there are still no federal rules in place for safe disposal of coal ash. Coal ash should be treated like the hazardous substance it is, governed by strong rules to protect communities and hold the coal industry accountable for the risks posed by its toxic waste." 

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