Ashtracker Database Helps Journos Dig Up Stories on Coal Ash Problems

June 11, 2014

Coal-burning utilities store thousands of tons of ash in open pits and ponds near rivers and aquifers all over the country. What could go wrong?

Coal ash made news just before President Obama took office when a dike failure spilled 1.1 billion gallons of toxic slurry into the community near TVA's Kingston Fossil Plant in Tennessee. Although Obama's then-EPA chief vowed to regulate coal ash, virtually nothing had been done in five years. Then on February 2, 2014, a pond at a Duke Energy coal plant in North Carolina spilled tons of coal ash into the Dan River. It was big news, however predictable.

Local reporters can find information about coal-ash situations in their own areas using a newly improved database compiled by the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP). It's called Ashtracker, and it goes well beyond anything previously available because it includes large amounts of painstaking research by EIP.

The site is important for its focus on contamination of groundwater that people may drink by the toxic heavy metals in coal combustion wastes. It actually compiles relevant groundwater monitoring data. It offers a lot of contextual explanation to make the data more understandable. It also puts the data in map form, making stories easier to visualize. And it is online and searchable.