Growing concern over the threat of coal ash to our health and environment is making its way into the board rooms of some of the nation’s biggest power companies. Shareholders for some power companies are pushing for resolutions on coal ash that would require more transparency about the size, scope and threat of coal ash dumps and waste ponds located near power plants.
Southern Company shareholders will vote on a resolution today that seeks more accountability from the power provider on coal ash waste ponds and landfills. The vote comes on the heels of similar votes at CMS Energy and Montana-Dakotas Utilities (MDU). The MDU resolution received 25.6% support, a huge step on an environmental resolution, which commonly only receive between 5-6% support.
"There is growing momentum to push power companies to deal with these coal ash problems," said Lisa Evans, Senior Administrative Counsel at Earthjustice. "Communities are concerned about the exposure they face. Scientists have noted that more needs to be done. And now, the power companies that own these ponds are hearing from their own shareholders that more needs to happen. We sincerely hope the federal regulators who are responsible for setting enforceable safeguards hear of these efforts and set strong protections for human health and the environment."
The problems of coal ash continue to mount. In December 2008, a coal ash waste pond at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston power plant burst through a dam and spilled over a billion gallons of the toxic waste over 300 acres. Enough coal ash is generated each year to fill train cars stretching from the North to South Poles. New testing methods for pollution in coal ash reveal that arsenic and antimony leach from coal ash ponds at up to 1,800 times the federal safe drinking water standard; chromium leaches at 124 times the level of previous leach tests and selenium, which causes circulatory problems in humans and is a bioaccumulative toxin extremely deadly to fish, leached at one coal ash pond at nearly 600 times the federal drinking water standard and 29 times the hazardous waste threshold.
New information on coal ash ponds — including the extent of Southern Company’s holdings and liabilities — continues to surface. Just this week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced it had discovered 45 additional coal ash ponds, 19 of which are owned and operated by Georgia Power Co., a subsidiary of Southern Co. Of these ponds, at least one is classified as "high hazard" and four are classified as "significant hazard ponds." A high hazard designation means that if the dam were to fail it would likely result in a loss of human life to downstream communities.
These additional ponds bring the total of coal ash ponds to 629. Enough coal ash is stored in these ponds to flow continuously over Niagara Falls for more than three days straight, or completely fill about 800 Empire State Buildings.
"The problems of coal ash are growing seemingly by the day," Evans said. "Earlier this month, the EPA proposed a mixed bag of a regulation that would either regulate coal ash as hazardous waste, as it should be, or as non-hazardous waste, which is what the polluters want. This new information about an additional 45 old and poorly unregulated waste ponds and better testing methods all points to the same conclusion. Coal ash is hazardous waste and it presents great risks to our communities, and we need comprehensive, federally enforceable safeguards that protect our health, wildlife, and environment."