Environmental Protection

Report Reveals the Scope of Coal Ash Problem

What happened last December in Eastern Tennessee when a dam holding billion gallons of waste collapsed represents just a small slice of the potential threat from coal ash, according to a new Center for Public Integrity report, Coal Ash: The Hidden Story.

Across the country – at ponds, landfills, and pits where coal ash gets dumped – a slow seepage of metals in the ash has poisoned water supplies, damaged ecosystems, and jeopardized citizens’ health. Contamination cases have surfaced in states as diverse as Maryland, New Mexico, Indiana, Virginia, and Montana. An interactive map on the project web site is searchable by ZIP code and shows the location of 446 landfills and disposal ponds and the quantity of coal ash produced nearby, enabling users to identify coal ash sites near their communities.

According to a Feb. 19 press release, the report features an extensive review and analysis of public documents obtained through Freedom of Information requests and archived agency documents; incorporates the perspectives of industry representatives, policymakers, environmental experts, and advocates; and includes video documenting the environmental and public health impact of the Tennessee coal ash disaster.

Coal ash is the solid waste generated by the combustion of coal at more than 500 power plants nationwide. These plants generate approximately 130 million tons of coal ash each year, 43 percent of which is recycled into other materials, such as concrete, roofing tiles, and structural fill. The remaining 70 million tons, however, is dumped into 194 landfills and 161 ponds in 47 states, according to the latest data available from the Department of Energy. Estimates from the Environmental Protection Agency peg the number of coal-ash sites even higher, at 600, with an unknown number of sites where coal ash is dumped in mines.

A July 2007 EPA investigation identified 63 coal ash landfills and ponds in 23 states where this toxic sludge is blamed for contaminating groundwater and the local ecology. Boron, arsenic, lead, and mercury are only a few of the 21 ingredients in the chemical cocktail that is coal ash, according to a 2006 EPA commissioned study by the National Academy of Sciences. Center for Public Integrity Executive Director Bill Buzenberg said "Our report sheds new light on why the EPA has been so ineffective in its attempt to regulate toxic coal ash."

The Center’s investigation reveals that arguments over federal oversight have flared for 28 years, most prominently in a furious interagency battle back in 2000.

Coal Ash: The Hidden Story is generously supported by a grant from the Deer Creek Foundation and is part of an ongoing investigative series on "clean coal" and climate change policy issues.

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