Contaminated Coal Waste
Power plants produce about 130 million tons of contaminated waste every year, and the federal government has failed to regulate it
Across the nation, coal-fired power plants aren't just polluting our skies and water. Each year, they generate millions of tons of waste contaminated with toxic metals -- more than two-thirds of which is dumped into landfills, storage ponds or old mines or otherwise stored somewhere, just waiting for disaster to strike.
That's what happened to the people of Harriman, Tenn., just a few days before Christmas 2008. A waste pond at a power plant operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority spilled over a billion gallons of toxic coal sludge across the community and countryside -- enough to fill about 1,600 Olympic-sized swimming pools.
The Harriman spill isn't the first time that the inadequacy of our nation's coal waste storage systems has been proven, and it isn't likely to be the last. In a 2007 draft report, the EPA identified 24 sites in 13 states where pollution from coal combustion waste dumps and lagoons has contaminated surface water and groundwater.
Coal-fired power plants produced more than 126 million tons of contaminated coal waste in 2005, the most recent year for which data is available, according to figures reported to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. And NRDC estimates show that the waste produced in a single year contains nearly 100,000 tons of toxic metals.
That's just the waste from plants already in operation. And coal plant developers want to build 70 more conventional coal-fired plants that would produce over 15 million tons of additional coal waste, contaminated with more than 15 thousand tons of toxic metals.
Despite the well-documented risks, no federal regulations govern the storage of this toxic coal waste, even though the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency determined as far back as 2000 that rules were needed. State rules are inconsistent and often laxly enforced, and the utility industry has lobbied hard to keep it that way.
To its credit, the Obama administration recently announced its intention to comprehensively inventory sites storing coal ash waste in liquid form and to propose federal regulations to ensure that coal waste is disposed of safely. NRDC will be working to make sure the administration gathers all necessary data and fully addresses all forms of coal waste that pose environmental or health threats, and is urging federal and state authorities to examine how coal waste will be handled at any proposed coal fired power plant and ensure that that all waste will be properly managed and disposed of before new plants are allowed to begin operating.
Explore the following pages to learn more about coal waste from new as well as existing power plants. You'll find states ranked by total coal waste, including the "Filthy Fifteen" states for projected coal waste from new power plants. You'll also find a wealth of detail on coal waste, including disposal methods and estimated amounts of toxic metals.
last revised 3/12/2009
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