Clash over Coal Ash

An aerial photograph of the Kingston Fossil Plant coal fly ash slurry spill, in Kingston, Tennessee, in December 2008. The spill released 1.1 billion gallons of coal ash slurry onto surrounding land and into rivers and was the largest such release in U.S. history.© Tennessee Valley Authority

Coal ash hearings are underway across the U.S. related to more than three dozen unaccounted for coal-ash dump sites in 21 states that are contaminating drinking water. In a report released on August 26, the Environmental Integrity Project, Earthjustice and the Sierra Club found that there were many cases of coal ash contamination that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had failed to include on its list of contaminated sites.

Coal ash, a contaminated byproduct of coal-burning power plants, can seriously impact public drinking supplies. The report found that "At every one of the 35 sites with groundwater monitoring wells, on-site test results show that heavy metals like arsenic or lead exceed federal health-based standards for drinking water." Heavy metals, meanwhile, are linked to wide range of developmental and neurological disorders.

Several issues are at play. One is that there is little to no monitoring of coal ash ponds in states with major sites including Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Indiana, Ohio, Mississippi, Missouri, New Mexico and Tennessee. In other cases, even when the groundwater is sampled for pollutants, that sampling does not extend beyond the boundaries of the coal combustion waste sites. This, despite the fact that "at 28 of the sites that contaminants had migrated away from coal ash ponds or landfills and toward the property boundary, and despite the fact that private or public drinking water wells were located downgradient and in close proximity to sources of contamination at many of the sites."

The EIP and other supporting organizations want to see polluters held responsible for cleanup at these sites and to face legal repercussions for illegal dumping. The groups are also calling on the EPA to take a greater role in oversight of these sites and to provide the regular testing and monitoring in the face of state inaction. The EPA is considering several new ways of regulating coal ash including federally enforceable requirements over how the ash is managed and disposed; and setting performance standards that the EPA won’t directly enforce (but would allow citizens to sue).

The first public hearing on the pending EPA coal ash rule was held August 30, 2010, in Washington, DC. Upcoming hearings will be held in Charlotte, North Carolina on September 14; Chicago, Illinois on September 16; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on September 21 and Louisville, Kentucky on September 28.

SOURCES: Charlotte Business Journal; Environmental Integrity Project