Coal Ash — An Overlooked Toxic Story That Won’t Go Away

November 23, 2022
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A map released by two advocacy groups shows 746 coal ash operations across the United States, the vast majority of which they say are contaminating groundwater with toxic substances at levels exceeding federal safety standards. Map: Earthjustice.

TipSheet: Coal Ash — An Overlooked Toxic Story That Won’t Go Away

By Joseph A. Davis

Sometimes a good story is just lying there, literally.

Coal ash, for instance. The toxic residual of coal combustion is just lying there in hundreds of U.S. communities — often flouting the law and poisoning people’s drinking water.

Now a new study of the state of coal ash enforcement offers journalists scores of ways to localize this overlooked national story.

Two advocacy groups that have done the most on coal ash — the Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice — put out a report in recent weeks that found that many coal-fired power plants are ignoring the law.


Why it matters

Coal ash — including fly ash, bottom ash, boiler slag, flue gas desulfurization material and other substances — is nasty stuff. And the amounts are huge.

The coal and electric utility industries really don’t want it, but don’t know what to do with it either (or don’t want to pay for dealing with it permanently).


For decades, the industry has let coal ash

pile up in pits, slurry ponds and other

‘temporary storage’ facilities that may be

there long after the generating plant closes.


So for decades, the industry has let it pile up in pits, slurry ponds and other “temporary storage” facilities that may be there long after the generating plant closes.

Those unstable ponds are dangerous. And coal ash is toxic and leaches into people’s drinking water. The toxics most often of concern in coal ash are heavy metals; for example, arsenic, lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium and selenium.

The haphazard “temporary” pits and ponds were rarely meant to immobilize those toxic metals permanently. One result is that the toxic metals leach out of the coal ash and into the surface or groundwater that people may drink.


The backstory

You might think the history of coal ash started on Dec. 22, 2008, when a dike containing a coal ash pond at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston Fossil Plant broke and spilled some 1.1 billion gallons of coal ash slurry onto people’s homes and into local waterways.

But it began long before that, when people began burning coal. The coal ash piled up and was ignored. There really was no enforceable environmental regime that could manage it — if anyone had really wanted to.

But the Kingston spill made for good helicopter shots on TV, and it happened just as the Obama administration was coming into office. Obama and incoming U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson vowed to address the problem. But they underestimated the political power of the coal and utility industries, not to mention the states.

The big question was whether the EPA would regulate coal ash as a hazardous waste under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, or RCRA. When the EPA ultimately proposed its coal ash rule, it ran into a buzz saw of opposition from utilities. The boldest approach was softened into options, and the eventual rule was pretty weak.

The Obama EPA did not finalize its watered-down rule until 2015. Pretty soon the Trump administration took over and weakened the rule even more. It basically left the states and utilities on an honor system.

The aforementioned report, “Poisonous Coverup: The Widespread Failure of the Power Industry to Clean Up Coal Ash Dumps,” declared the whole situation a … well, poisonous coverup. It found that seven years after the EPA’s rule, 96% of coal plants are not planning any treatment of contaminated groundwater.


Story ideas

  • Use the Earthjustice mapper to identify coal ash sites of interest to your area.
  • Use the EPA’s List of Publicly Accessible Internet Sites to find compliance documents about sites of interest to you.
  • Is there groundwater monitoring at the sites you’re interested in? What are the findings?
  • Where do the localities around the sites you’re interested in get their drinking water? Check their source water assessments.
  • What do water utilities’ consumer confidence reports say about contaminants in drinking water near you? Are any contaminants related to coal ash?
  • Is there a dust problem at any of the coal ash sites you’re interested in? What is being done about it?
  • Many power plants are near rivers or lakes. What is the risk of flooding at sites near you? What would happen in a flooding incident?


Reporting resources

[Editor’s Note: For more on the coal ash story, check out a recent TipSheet on how an EPA leak on problem coal ash sites could yield local drinking water stories, as well as a TipSheet on using coal ash data to help pinpoint local pollution stories. And for the latest coal ash-related news, see top headlines from EJToday.]

Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, and curates SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday and @EJTodayNews. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 7, No. 42. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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