Coal Ash Stories Untold in Many Communities

January 7, 2009

The coal ash spill at a Tennessee power plant in December 2008 has been making headlines for almost two weeks — but only a few local journalists realize that coal-ash stories abound in many communities. Here are some clues for finding them.

There are roughly 1,500 coal-burning electric power plants spread across the United States today (and more coming), and each one of them produces coal ash, also known as "fly ash" or even "coal combustion products" (CCP). Not all of these wastes are poised above houses behind shaky earthen dams. But most do raise significant environmental issues.

Coal ash is used for concrete, asphalt, brick, and landfill, among other things. This may in some cases be a safe way to dispose of it.

But coal ash contains numerous toxic heavy metals, ranging from lead and arsenic to mercury, and has the potential to be toxic or a nuisance when it gets into water (via leaching) or air (via dust).

Coal-ash disposal strategies vary widely from power plant to power plant, from company to company, and from community to community. Have you looked into the fate of coal ash coming from plants near you?

FINDING COAL PLANTS NEAR YOU

There are several available databases of coal power plants. None is perfect. A pretty thorough one was published by the U.S. Energy Information Administration up until 2005. You can get it here. This spreadsheet allows you to find existing plants easily by state and county. It is best viewed using Microsoft Internet Explorer and Excel. A useful statistical analysis and context is EIA's Electric Power Annual and more data is here (Existing Capacity by Energy Source).

More data on planned coal power plants.

Once you find your plant(s), you might simply call them up and ask what they do with their fly ash. But if past experience offers a guide, you might not get an unvarnished answer.

There are several things to check if you want more thorough answers. EPA must issue permits to coal power plants — for air emissions, and possibly also for water discharges (coal ash is not currently regulated as a hazardous waste, but only as a solid waste, although states may regulate it more strictly). Plants are also required to report their releases of certain toxics through the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI). When searching EPA databases, you will tend to find coal power plants under SIC codes 4911, 4923, and 4939. Once you find the facility ID number, it may be easier to work with that in your searches.

Some questions: Does the ash sit in piles before disposal? — and if so, does it create dust? Does the ash leach into water while stored? — and if so, what measures are taken to protect ground and surface water? What assurances does the power plant company have that third parties will handle the ash responsibly?

  • Air Permits.
  • Water Permits.
  • Toxics Release Inventory.
  • Enforcement.
  • The Environmental Integrity Project will hold a telepresser on Wednesday, January 7, 2009, at 1:00 pm ET, about the possibility of coal-ash disasters at other sites. It will feature speakers from the EIP, EarthJustice, Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, and United Mountain Defense. To participate (with 2-way Q&A), dial (800) 860-2442. Ask for the "national coal pollution danger" news event call. Press Contact: Leslie Anderson, (703) 276-3256.