EPA Relents, Releases List of 44 High-Hazard Coal-Ash Ponds

July 1, 2009

FOIA requests and Congressional pressure got the Obama administration to reverse its decision to withhold key information about dangers to communities from coal-ash ponds operated by electric utilities.

The Army Corps of Engineers and Department of Homeland Security had wanted to shield utilities and federal regulators from accountability for potentially unsafe ash ponds. They claimed, without any legal basis or publicly presented evidence, that terrorists might attack the ash ponds if they knew where they were. Information on the location of the ash ponds was already publicly available. The worst of them had been publicly discussed for years. All that was withheld was EPA's picks for the 44 most hazardous.

A "high-hazard" rating refers to potential loss of life or property in the event of a containment failure — usually because settled areas are nearby. It does not refer to the condition of the dike, berm, or dam containing the coal-ash slurry.

EPA had been evaluating the hazard and integrity of the ash ponds as Administrator Lisa Jackson had promised Congress she would do. When EPA finally whittled its high-hazard list down to 44, the Corps and DHS objected to release of the information. EPA gave the information to Senate Environment Committee Chair Barbara Boxer (D-CA), asking her not to release it. Congress can release such information. Boxer held a press conference objecting to the black-out and put the onus back on EPA to explain why the list needed to be withheld. EPA on June 29, 2009, released the list.

The event may set a favorable precedent for release of hazard ratings of dams in the National Inventory of Dams, which are currently being withheld by the Corps — again on alleged security grounds with no offered legal basis.