'60 Minutes' Covers Coal Ash Contamination

Last night "60 Minutes" aired an in-depth story on the problems with coal ash, a byproduct of the burning of coal at power plants.  Leslie Stahl focused on last year's nightmare before Christmas, when an impoundment pond containing 50-year's worth of coal ash waste at a TVA power plant burst in the middle of the night and poured over a billion gallons of toxic sludge into the Emory River and across hundreds of acres in the town of Harriman, Tennessee.  Luckily, no one was killed but the property damage was extensive.  Residents are now dealing with a huge mess that has ruined their quality of life and continues to threaten their health.

The story then pivoted to alternative disposal methods for the 130 million tons of coal ash produced by the nation's power plants every year.  Coal ash contains many toxic metals, including arsenic, which unchecked, can leak into ground water and be extremely hazardous to breathe.  But industry touts supposedly "beneficial" uses of it, such as recycling it as fill dirt in construction projects. 

In particular, Stahl focused on the case of a Virginia neighborhood dealing with the effects of a golf course constructed with 1.5 million tons of coal ash that they blame for contaminating their water supply.  A consultant hired to build the golf course for Dominion Power has accused the company of misleading him about the safety of the ash.  (I blogged about this controversy previously.)   

All of a sudden the story took on a more personal nature for me when I noticed that one of the neighbors fighting to force the cleanup of the golf course graduated high school with me.  I knew her well -- we even double-dated to the Homecoming dance junior year.  It was so distressing to see Stacy on television detailing her saga.  She lives directly across the street from the golf course and is worried about the health risks posed by the coal ash, especially since her children played outside during construction.  Her concerns worsened last year after the city dug into the golf course, did a test and found elevated levels of toxic metals in the water.  Dominion still maintains that the site poses no health hazards.  In response, Stacy tells Leslie Stahl: "I invite anybody from the companies who have put it over there to come to my house and have dinner.  And I will use that tap water."

The "60 Minutes" story does an excellent job on the issue, and serves to reinforce that coal -- whether it's mined, burned or stored -- is dirty and dangerousClick here to watch the video of the segment or to read a transcript.

It's worth noting that coal ash pollution is a nationwide problem.  Countless communities across the country -- really, wherever there are coal-fired power plants -- are potentially threatened not just by the smokestack pollution but by the waste left behind that gets stored in either dry landfills or wet impoundments.  Yesterday there was a report in South Carolina about "streams of a poisonous, potentially cancer-causing substance" found draining to the Wateree River from a coal-fired power plant.  Investigators recently discovered alarmingly high levels of arsenic seeping from the power plant's 80-acre coal ash waste pond, less than 300 feet away from the river and just a few miles upstream from Congaree National Park.

Records show that arsenic seeping from this coal ash pond over the past 15 years has contaminated groundwater beneath the property at levels exceeding the federal safe drinking water standard.  Local residents, many of whom rely on well water, fear pollution from the site could one day taint their drinking water and make the Wateree River unsafe.  As the article quoted one concerned resident:  "People commercial-fish in that river and eat fish out of that river."  

They have reason to worry, as short-term exposure in high enough doses can cause nausea, vomiting, skin disorders and death.  Long-term exposure to arsenic has been linked to cancers of the bladder, lungs, kidneys, liver and prostate, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  Test results at this particular spill site found groundwater readings up to 18 times higher than the maximum contaminant level for drinking water in two test wells on the utility's own property, according to the story.

Take Action

NRDC is calling on the EPA to regulate coal ash as hazardous waste.  Currently, there is a patchwork regulatory system that puts millions of Americans at risk from spills such as the one in Tennessee.  Federally enforceable, minimum standards for the disposal of so-called coal combusion waste in landfills, and the phase out of dangerous industrial-sized ponds, where a toxic mix of coal ash and water is contained, are a necessity.  The EPA has the authority to require federally enforceable, tailored disposal regulations while promoting safe and legitimate recycling. 

Please take a moment to urge EPA to protect our environment and our communities from coal ash.