Flawed EPA Coal Ash Analysis, Unacceptable Delays Leave Americans at Risk

Nearly a quarter of facilities assessed receive poor safety rating; coal ash protection still delayed


Lisa Evans, Earthjustice, (781) 631-4119


Oliver Bernstein, Sierra Club, (512) 289-8618


Lisa Widawsky, Environmental Integrity Project (202) 263-4452

Today the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released final assessment reports which detail the structural integrity of coal ash dams. The agency began making these assessment reports public in May 2010, bringing the total number of dams inspected by EPA contractors to 228 dams since May 2009. Of these 228 dams, EPA inspectors gave a rating of “poor” to 55 dams, about 24 percent of the total inspected.

It has been almost 2 ½ years since the December 2008 TVA Kingston coal ash disaster in Tennessee, and over one year since the EPA proposed coal ash protections. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson had promised to issue effective standards for toxic coal ash disposal in 2010, but the agency recently announced that the standards may be delayed until the end of 2012, with no date certain for the establishment of a final protection. Coal ash is filled with arsenic, lead, cadmium, mercury, selenium, and many other dangerous pollutants that can cause cancer and damage the nervous system and other organs, especially in children.

“It’s a shame that the EPA says it is committed to making communities near coal ash sites safer places to live, yet it delays the first ever federal regulations for coal ash sites into 2012,” said Lisa Evans, Senior Administrative Counsel at Earthjustice. “Safety plans are one thing; regulating this hazardous waste with real, federally enforceable safeguards that protect public health is another—and it’s just as important.”

“Living near a toxic coal ash site is worse for your health than smoking a pack of cigarettes each day, and it’s time for the EPA to enact strong protections for our families—without delay,” said Dalal Aboulhosn, Associate Washington Representative with the Sierra Club. “There are no firm guidelines in place to protect Americans from the nation’s hundreds of operating coal ash dams even though over 1.5 million American children live near these toxic coal ash disposal sites.”

“The EPA, by asking utilities to create their own unenforceable plans to fix their structurally poor coal ash impoundments, is merely asking the fox to guard the henhouse,” said Lisa Widawsky, Attorney with the Environmental Integrity Project. “With almost one quarter of all dams inspected receiving a ‘poor’ structural integrity rating, communities need swift adoption of EPA’s Subtitle C standards to protect them and to ensure that any deficiencies by the companies can be federally enforced.”

The final assessment reports also indicate:

  • Of the 55 dams rated “poor” and needing either repair or further testing to determine adequate stability, nine were high-hazard dams, meaning if breached would likely take human life and 39 were significant hazard dams, defined as dams that would cause substantial economic and environmental harm if they failed. More than half of the high hazard dams rated poor are located in Indiana, a state with some of the worst coal ash regulations in the country.  Indiana is also home to the highest number of poor rated dams—25.
  • Ohio, also a state with very lax coal ash controls, ranks second with 10 “poor” rated dams.  Eight other states host “poor” rated dams, including Alabama with three, Georgia with one, Louisiana with three, North Carolina with six, Pennsylvania with one, Texas with three and Virginia with one.
  • EPA also provided additional data on 47 coal ash ponds not previously identified by EPA, raising the number of coal ash ponds in the United States from 629 to 676 at 240 plants.

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