How Vulnerable Are You to Coal Ash Pollution?

[Photo of TN spill courtesy of Chris Irwin, United Mountain Defense]

Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Georgia, Alabama.

These are the states where the most coal ash waste is stored in ponds, like the one in Tennessee at that TVA power plant that recently blew out and buried downstream communities under roughly 5 million tons of toxic sludge.

[UPDATE: There are reports of another coal ash pond rupture at a TVA power plant in Alabama.]

The Associated Press today reports that millions more tons of toxic coal ash is piling up in power plant ponds in 32 states.  Even though the federal government has long recognized this risky waste disposal as a threat to human health and the environment, the EPA has never bothered to regulate it. 

The AP analysis of government data reveals some startling stats:

  • 156 coal-fired power plants currently store ash in surface ponds similar to the one that collapsed at the TVA Kingston Fossil Plant in Tennessee.
  • 721 power plants generating at least 100 megawatts of electricity produced 95.8 million tons of coal ash in 2005 (the most recent year data is available).
  • Nearly 20 million tons (20%) of coal ash ended up in surface ponds in 2005.
  • About 300 ponds for coal ash exist nationwide, according to EPA estimates.

The raw numbers may be alarming, but what's really frightening is what they mean.   We're talking about unlined lagoons -- basically cesspools ("wet dumps") filled with the ash left over after the coal is burned to produce power.  This is the stuff that doesn't get emitted as air pollution through the smokestacks.  I tend to think of it as the industrial equivalent of what cigarrete smokers leave in the ash tray.  Except in this case, the coal ash dumped into waste ponds contains tens of thousands of pounds of toxic heavy metals.  As with smoking, this hazardous waste also can cause cancer, among a host of other dangerous health impacts -- but obviously on a much grander scale.

Just like you don't want to breathe these toxins, you certainly don't want to touch them or drink them in contaminated water.  But unlike with air pollutants, coal ash is not even regulated as hazardous material.

That's right.  As the AP investigation found, "[T]the Environmental Protection Agency eight years ago said it wanted to set a national standard for ponds or landfills used to dispose of wastes produced from burning coal.  The agency has yet to act." 

Apparently, back in 1988 and again in 1993, the EPA also opted not to regulate coal ash as a hazardous waste.  The agency has also declined to take other steps to control how this nasty stuff is stored or used.

Think about this:  Landfills for our household trash is more regulated than these dirty, dangerous coal ash ponds. 

Fortunately, the Tennessee tragedy is finally fostering public awareness of this serious problem and focusing the attention of Congress.  Even celebrated legal activist Erin Brockovich is on the scene conferring with the disaster victims.

On Capitol Hill, some legislators are now clamoring to pass a law to ensure stricter federal standards and enforcement for hazardous coal ash waste -- welcome news and a step that NRDC believes is long overdue.   

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