New Coal Ash Data Help Pinpoint Local Pollution Stories

March 13, 2019
Aerial view of a coal ash spill at Duke Energy’s Sutton power plant in North Carolina in September 2018. Flooding caused by Hurricane Florence brought the polluted waters to the nearby Cape Fear River. Photo: Waterkeeper Alliance/Jo-Anne McArthur, Flickr Creative Commons. Click to enlarge.

TipSheet: New Coal Ash Data Help Pinpoint Local Pollution Stories

A new report makes it easy to find a coal ash story near you — a coal ash pollution story, in most cases.

Controversy about how to manage coal ash has raged for more than a decade. When electric utilities burn coal, they produce huge amounts of residue — the bulk of it ash that would have gone up the smokestack but was instead captured by pollution equipment.

Now, new data show how widely that coal ash is poisoning people’s water.

A March 4 report by two nonprofit advocacy groups that specialize in coal ash compiles legally reported data about water pollution around the hundreds of massive coal ash ponds and landfills that dot the United States.

The report makes hard-to-find data easy to use, and is a perfect starting point for local coal ash stories. You can find the report, along with useful interactive maps, at the Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice.


Back story

Coal ash has been around as long as utilities have burned coal. But it became more visible and controversial after a December 2008 spill at Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston fossil plant that buried 12 houses in a slurry of water and ash, some 5.4 million cubic yards of it.

The cleanup, which has yet to be finished, is costing hundreds of millions.

The Kingston set-up, it turned out, wasn’t that unusual. Fly ash was mixed with water and pumped into storage ponds, where it dried, presumably to stay there for all eternity. The problem at Kingston was that the slurry was contained by a dam that failed.

The initial fuss after Kingston was about the integrity and safety of slurry dams. President  Barack Obama, just entering office then, vowed to do something.

But the biggest problem with coal ash, it turns out, isn’t dam safety. It’s pollution.


Coal ash had been left almost unregulated

at the urging of utilities. … The big question

is whether to treat it as a regular

solid waste or as a hazardous waste.


Coal ash had been left almost unregulated at the urging of utilities. Under Obama, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency struggled to come up with a regulation under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act — beset on one side by environmentalists and frightened residents and on the other side by utilities.

The big question is whether to treat coal ash as a regular solid waste or as a hazardous waste, which would require more stringent protections.

EPA finally published its first coal ash rule in 2015, and was promptly criticized by all sides. EPA did not classify coal ash as a hazardous waste, but subjected it to an array of special requirements.

The agency was more lenient with old disposal sites that no longer accepted waste  — and a number of disposal sites promptly closed. It also allowed states to run the regulatory programs under tight EPA supervision.

The Trump EPA, which is far more solicitous of utilities and the coal industry, promptly set about revising and weakening the rule. The revisions, finalized July 2018, gave states a lot more leeway. But they kept requirements that utilities monitor groundwater around their sites and make that data available to the public.  


Why it matters

Coal ash contains a large array of toxic substances that can leach out via water and harm human health. When it is kicked up as dust into the air, it can also harm health. It includes particles that are taken out of the smokestack by pollution control equipment.

The toxics of most concern are heavy metals: lead, mercury, nickel, tin, cadmium, antimony and arsenic, among others. When these are ingested via water or breathed in, in sufficient doses, they can poison the nervous system and other body systems.

Arsenic can also cause cancer. When the ingestion is chronic, as in drinking water, even low doses can be harmful.

Often most vulnerable are homeowners with their own wells that draw from an aquifer contaminated by a coal ash facility. Municipal well-fields may also be affected.


Story ideas

  • Where are the coal ash disposal areas near you? Are there multiple sites for one power plant? Are they “active” or “closed?”
  • Are these disposal sites landfills or ponds? Are they lined or unlined? Are the ponds constructed with dams or berms? What condition are these in?
  • What are the contamination numbers from actual monitoring of groundwater at these sites?
  • Is there a project for cleaning up or mitigating the disposal sites? Report on its progress.
  • Who uses the groundwater from aquifers likely to be contaminated by this site? Private landowners? Communities? Water utilities? Industries? Do those aquifers discharge into nearby surface waters? What residential water wells are nearby?
  • What happens at these disposal sites during intense rains, snowmelt or flooding?
  • Is coal ash from your utility or site being “recycled?”


Reporting resources

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 4, No. 11. 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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