EPA Data Show U.S. Has 584 Coal Ash Impoundments

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has provided information to environmental groups about America's toxic coal ash dumps after months of data collection and inquiry. The groups, after a Freedom of Information Act request, discovered that there are 584 coal ash dump sites across the country—almost twice as many as previously identified, according to a press release from the Sierra Club.

Because EPA does not regulate the waste from coal-fired power plants, the agency had no information on the location and nature of the 584 wet ash dumps located throughout the United States. The agency has acknowledged that wet disposal of coal ash presents a greater risk to human health and the environment than dry landfills, Sierra Club says, because hazardous chemicals are more likely to migrate from such dumps and the large impoundments present a risk of catastrophic failure.

The EPA data note ownership, location, hazard potential, year commissioned, type and quantity of coal combustion waste disposed, dates of the last regulatory or company assessment, and in some instances whether an unregulated discharge of coal ash had occurred. Some critical data were not included because companies claimed the data as Confidential Business Information.

States with coal ash sites included in the list are: 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. Lisa Evans, an attorney at Earthjustice, said: "The EPA list provides a clear view of the substantial extent of the threat. Now the agency needs to take the next step and ensure that communities are informed and protected against the possibility of another TVA-like tragedy."

On Dec. 22, 2008, at the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston Fossil Plant in Harriman, Tenn., over 1 billion gallons of coal ash sludge flooded 300 acres in and near the Emory River when a dike at a coal ash pond collapsed.

The data reveal the problems are much more widespread than EPA previously thought, the Sierra Club says. The wet disposal of coal ash affects communities in 35 states, with concentrations of dangerous dumps in the Midwest, Appalachia, Intermountain West and Southeast. The data reveal that the majority of dump sites are over 30 years old—raising questions about the structural integrity of their dams and whether the waste ponds are adequately lined. The data also show that regulatory inspections of these dams by state and federal agencies are infrequent or non-existent.

The Sierra Club says the problems are likely underestimated by the present data set because companies like Duke Energy, Alabama Power, Georgia Power and Progress Energy have withheld information on 74 dump sites, including some of the largest dump sites in the U.S, claiming the information is "confidential business information." "Some utilities -- notably the Duke and Southern Companies -- are hiding the ball, withholding data on their ash ponds that their competitors have already provided to EPA," said Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project. "Let's hope that EPA's enforcement program puts a stop to these bogus claims of 'confidentiality,' and compels the disclosure of data that companies are required to report."

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson has said the agency is developing rules to govern disposal and storage of coal ash, and expects a proposal by the end of this year. "Research has made it clear that coal ash is becoming increasingly toxic. In fact the cancer risk of people living near some coal ash sites is a staggering 1 in 50," said Mary Anne Hitt, deputy director of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign. "Despite those chilling statistics, there are still no federal rules in place for safe disposal of coal ash. Coal ash should be treated like the hazardous substance it is, governed by strong rules to protect communities and hold the coal industry accountable for the risks posed by its toxic waste."

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