Report Highlights Urgent Need to Protect American Communities from Toxic Coal Ash Pollution
Washington, D.C. – Today, Sierra Club and Earthjustice joined national experts and local activists in releasing “Dangerous Waters: America’s Coal Ash Crisis,” a report that illustrates the ongoing damage and risks to public health from the toxic sludge left over when power plants burn coal. Non-existent, inadequate or toothless state regulations and glaring risks posed by the coal ash sites featured in the report make a clear case for strong, federally enforceable safeguards. EPA is due to finalize national coal ash standards in December 2014, but it is unclear how strong those regulations will be. The agency is currently considering multiple options, including weak protections that do little to protect public health and the environment that are favored by the power industry.
The report release comes as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency prepares to release new federal safeguards governing coal ash disposal, in the wake of a recent coal ash spill that was the third largest in US history and demonstrated the need for strong, federally enforceable, coal ash protections. In February, a burst pipe at an unlined coal ash pit in Eden, North Carolina sent 39,000 tons of toxic coal ash and 27 million gallons of contaminated wastewater into the Dan River, threatening drinking water of eight counties downstream and coating the river bottom with toxic sludge for 70 miles.
“People in North Carolina and communities across the country are fighting for basic protections to safeguard our drinking water, our families’ health, and our natural resources from toxic coal ash,” explained Mary Anne Hitt, Campaign Director of Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign. “Coal ash disasters like those at Dan River, North Carolina, or Kingston, Tennessee, could happen at many of the coal ash sites highlighted in this report. All Americans deserve strong national protections from dangerous coal ash pollution.”
The report details coal ash disposal, contamination, and regulation for eight states with significant coal ash problems: North Carolina, Kentucky, Missouri, Virginia, New Mexico, Montana, Indiana, and Illinois. None of the eight states adequately protects public health from exposure to the toxic contaminants contained in coal ash – including arsenic, lead, and mercury.
The report found numerous instances of coal ash being stored in massive, antiquated, unlined ponds. Often, these ponds lack monitoring to detect if nearby groundwater and waterways are being contaminated. “High hazard” coal ash dams, a designation given by EPA to indicate that a breach would likely cause loss of human life, were found in some states to be inspected rarely, if at all. Others received “poor” ratings for their structural integrity; incredibly, some coal ash dump sites were not even designed by a professional engineer.
In some states, regulators appeared to turn a blind eye to coal ash operator’s dangerous practices and outright polluting of waterways. For example, in Kentucky, the Mill Creek power plant was found to be discharging coal ash wastewater on a nearly daily basis into the Ohio River.
“Coal ash continues to poison our waters and our air, yet no federal regulations exist,” said Earthjustice attorney Lisa Evans, who specializes in hazardous waste law. “Earlier this year the EPA committed to finalize the first-ever federal coal ash regulations by December 19. While we applaud the certainty of safety and health protections, we know that the power industry will do anything to secure weak standards. Coal ash has already polluted more than 200 lakes, rivers, streams and drinking water aquifers. We can’t wait for more tragedies to occur before something is done to stop this toxic menace.”
Coal ash, the byproduct of coal combustion and other hazardous compounds, contains arsenic, lead, mercury, and selenium, as well as aluminum, barium, boron, and chlorine. These toxins can cause cancer, heart damage, lung disease, respiratory distress, kidney disease, reproductive problems, gastrointestinal illness, birth defects, and impaired bone growth in children.