EPA Data Reveals Nearly Double the Number of Coal Ash Dumps

Information obtained from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reveals the existence of nearly twice as many toxic coal ash dumps across the country as the agency previously indicated to the public. 

The results of NRDC's recent Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request -- filed jointly with Sierra Club, Earthjustice, and the Environmental Integrity Project -- show that there are 584 so-called wet ash storage dumps, like the one that ruptured last December in Tennessee and polluted over 300 acres with more than a billion gallons of contaminated coal sludge. 

Each of the newly accounted for waste sites pose significant health risks from the ash, which is a byproduct of coal-fired power plants.  (See summary list of the sites here.)  Coal ash contains harmful levels of arsenic, lead, mercury and other toxins, which can leach into drinking water sources.  As with the spill last year in Harriman, Tennessee, large impoundments containing the ash also present a risk of catastrophic failure to downstream communities.

[UPDATE: Yesterday the EPA formally released the survey results on coal combustion waste impoundments at utilities nationwide for public review.]

Since coal combustion waste remains unregulated by the federal government (!), the EPA had never before bothered to determine the location and nature of the coal ash dumps scattered across the country.  In the wake of the disaster at TVA's Kingston Fossil Plant in Tennessee, the agency set about conducting a survey of similar ash ponds at hundreds of other coal-fired power plants throughout the nation.  

The resulting data show that these sites are located in 35 states, including:  Alabama; Arkansas; Arizona; Colorado; Delaware; Florida; Georgia; Iowa; Illinois; Indiana; Kansas; Kentucky; Louisiana; Massachusetts; Maryland; Michigan; Minnesota; Missouri; Mississippi; Montana; North Carolina; North Dakota; New Mexico; New York; Ohio; Oklahoma; Pennsylvania; South Carolina; Tennessee; Texas; Utah; Virginia; Wisconsin; West Virginia; and Wyoming.

No aspect of coal is cheap -- and certainly not the storage of the waste generated by the burning of this dirty and dangerous fuel.  The EPA data confirms that the threat posed by unregulated coal ash dumps -- wet or dry -- is much more extensive than previously thought. Just consider a few of the alarming facts uncovered by EPA's survey:

  • The majority of coal ash ponds are decades old and over 100 of them range in size from 50 acres to several hundred acres. (Recall that the earthen pond adjacent to the Emory River which ruptured at the Kingston plant contained more than 50 years worth of coal ash!)
  • Regulatory inspections of these dumps by state and federal agencies rarely if ever occur.
  • It remains unknown at this point how many ash ponds may be structurally deficient.
  • Several power companies refused to divulge information about their waste storage to EPA, citing bogus proprietary business confidentiality. 

If the tragedy in Tennessee has taught us anything it's that the EPA needs to move swiftly to regulate coal combustion waste as "hazardous" under federal law -- something EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson has pledged to do by the end of this year.  However, the coal industry -- and its political backers in Congress -- are urging against agency action. 

Clearly, utilities don't want the American people to know about the dangers posed by their toxic coal waste, nor do they want the government to force tighter environmental and safety measures -- like landfill liners, monitoring, and inspections -- that will drive up their disposal costs.  Status quo for the industry means the ability to continue perpetuating the myth of cheap coal -- at great cost for Americans in the form of environmental pollution, health risks, and safety hazards.  

NRDC and our partners will continue to press the EPA to fulfill it's obligation to protect the air we breathe and the water we drink by finally and fully regulating coal ash as the hazardous waste it so obviously is.