Coal Ash: A Clear and Present Danger

The horror is unimaginable.  A community suffering severe health effects, with more than a thousand residents blaming coal ash contamination for causing their sickness, including grisly birth defects in their children.  This, according to a recent investigative story in the Miami Herald.  Go to the article to see a slide show and video, including a photo of Maximiliano Calcaño, a two-year old boy born with no arms.  His mother is quoted: "When I was pregnant, I was dizzy, vomiting and could barely walk.  Then my baby was born like that, with no arms."

As reported, a Virginia-based power company,  AES Corporation, is blamed for causing these health problems after illegally dumping 160 million pounds of coal ash in the Dominican Republic.  The company is accused of hiring a contractor to ship the coal ash -- a byproduct of burning the fossil fuel at power plants -- to Samaná, on the Dominican Republic's Atlantic coast, where it sat for two years.  Later, villagers began to complain of children being born with horrible disorders, such as missing limbs or having organs on the outside of their bodies.  Last week, a class action lawsuit was filed in a Delaware court alleging AES is responsible for the health problems in Samaná and should be held liable for correcting the situation.

Contaminated Coal Waste

If you think what pours out of power plant smokestacks is bad, consider what gets left behind.  The waste from burning coal is packed with heavy metals such as arsenic, which causes cancer.  Around the country, about 600 landfills and surface ponds are used to store leftover contaminated coal waste.  When they break or leak, communities face the risk of contaminated farmland, wildlife and drinking water.  And the coal ash stored in unlined landfills in communities all across the country -- and around the world -- can leach into drinking water supplies.

Every year, coal-fired power plants in the U.S. produce about 130 million tons of contaminated waste, which we know poses significant health risks.  In fact, people living near unlined coal ash impoundments have as much as a 1 in 50 chance of getting cancer from drinking water contaminated by arsenic leaking from the sites, according to studies by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 

Only now is the federal government finally considering regulating this hazardous waste -- prompted by last year's devastating coal spill disaster in Tennessee.

(The 1.1 billion gallon coal sludge spill in Tennessee is costing TVA an estimated $1 million per day to clean up)

The sooner that the EPA acts on this, the better.  After all, in the wake the Kingston coal ash spill in Harriman, Tennessee, the EPA surveyed the nation's coal-fired power plants and identified 584 "wet" storage dumps, located in 35 states. 

Meanwhile, the agency has no concrete estimate on the number of "dry" storage dumps around the country.  (Perhaps the Miami Herald expose will prompt EPA to get to work on locating those hazardous landfills.)

But on the issue of the coal ash ponds, the problem may be even more severe than EPA even knows.  Take West Virginia, for example, where inspections by the state Department of Environmental Protection uncovered more problems -- and dams -- than expected.  According to reports, three of the state's 20 coal ash impoundments are in poor condition and inspectors stumbled upon two more in poor condition that the state had no idea even existed.  

This begs the question: How can we be sure how many wet or dry coal ash storage dumps there are around the country, given that we're relying on self-reporting by the power sector?  And given the alarming reports from the Dominican Republic, how safe are the people who live near these waste ponds and landfills? 

Ten months after the massive coal ash spill in Tennessee, victims complain about "living in hell" as they battle health problems, with one resident blaming the fly ash contamination for causing his headaches and his wife's eyes to swell shut, while both suffer constant "coughing and hacking."

All the more reason why EPA must swiftly fulfill its pledge to issue regulations that will at long last protect Americans from hazardous coal combustion waste.  Urge the agency to act quickly.

About the Authors

Rob Perks

Managing Director, Campaigns & External Affairs

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