Two years ago today, more than 1 billion gallons of toxic coal ash sludge burst through a dam, destroyed or damaged a dozen homes and ruined a community living near the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston Fossil Plant in rural Tennessee. Shortly after the spill, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson promised to protect the public from another coal ash environmental disaster. Yet, the public still waits for passage of a comprehensive coal ash rule.
To mark the two-year anniversary, the environmental groups Earthjustice, Environmental Integrity Project, the Sierra Club and Southern Alliance for Clean Energy are calling on the EPA to regulate coal ash dumps this year.
“Every day without protection means thousands of tons of ash are dumped and more arsenic, lead and mercury leak from these sites,” said Lisa Evans, senior administrative counsel for Earthjustice. “The rule is stuck in Washington, but the flow of toxic chemicals continues. If the Capital was located below one of these high hazard dams, we’d have a coal ash rule.”
About $400 million has been spent in cleanup costs with more than 3 million tons of spilled ash removed from the site. However, the cleanup is far from complete. Without regulation, coal ash waste has been dumped in unlined pits and ponds throughout the U.S. At least 50 high-hazard dams, similar to the one at Kingston, hold back millions of tons of coal ash and more than 100 locations across the country have been plagued by poisoned water and air.
“The Kingston disaster dramatically brought to light the festering problem of unregulated coal ash pollution,” says Dr. Stephen A. Smith, Executive Director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. “We call on the EPA to follow through on Lisa Jackson’s pledge to address this long neglected issue and move swiftly to finalize the coal ash rule that will classify this waste as hazardous. We cannot afford to wait any more when so many communities in our region are in the shadow of threats just like those in Kingston.”
“Thanks to poor regulation by states, every region of the U.S. is now littered with unlined coal ash dumps that have contaminated groundwater often used as drinking water and are discharging arsenic, selenium, lead, and other toxic metals in uncontrolled concentrations to rivers, streams and lakes,” said Eric Schaeffer, Director of Environmental Integrity Project. “The number of locations with water supplies contaminated by coal ash has grown almost 20-fold; from seven acknowledged by EPA in 1999, to 137 documented today with many more likely but unknown because states are not even monitoring most coal ash dump sites.”
“Our thoughts today are with those who are still living with the terrible consequences of this massive disaster, one that could have been prevented if adequate federal protections were in place,” said Lyndsay Moseley a Tennessee native who works on coal ash for the Sierra Club. “But thoughts are not enough, we need action. We need EPA to quickly finalize federally enforceable protections from toxic coal ash before there is another disaster.”
- EPA’s own risk assessments demonstrate the extremely high risk to human health from coal ash, which contributes to heart disease, cancer, stroke and chronic lower respiratory disease. Yet our comments indicate that this high cancer risk – one in 50 at some coal ash sites – is substantially underestimated. The leading arsenic experts in the country observe that this risk is actually 17.5 times greater.
- Analyzing state regulations shows that the majority of states fail to require essential safeguards for coal ash landfills and ponds, including liners, groundwater monitoring, leachate collection, dust controls and financial assurance. In the two years since the disaster in Kingston, little has been done to improve state controls. Only four states in the U.S. require all landfills to be monitored and only six states require all ponds to be monitored for leaks.
- By EPA’s own admission, coal ash ponds and landfills are disproportionately located in low-income communities. Almost 70 percent of ash ponds in the U.S. are in areas where household income is lower than the national median.
- If all costs are passed on to consumers, the rule would result in a one-time rate increase of between 0.5 and 1 percent even in coal-dependent states like Indiana, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. EPA has failed to account for the avoided cost of lawsuits and damage claims related to spills and fouled drinking water, bringing municipal water to wells that are no longer usable, restoring ecosystems contaminated with heavy metals, and premature death and disease from exposure to wind-blown particles from ash dumps.