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February 19, 2009
2:13 PM

Coal Ash: The Hidden Story

A four-month investigation by the Center for Public Integrity reveals a growing environmental disaster and a decades-long history of government inaction

WASHINGTON - February 19 - The dangers of coal ash were largely hidden from public view until December, when a dam holding a billion gallons of the waste collapsed in Eastern Tennessee. But what happened there represents just a small slice of the potential threat from coal ash, according to a new Center for Public Integrity report, Coal Ash: The Hidden Story.  

Across the country - at ponds, landfills, and pits where coal ash gets dumped - a slow seepage of metals in the ash has poisoned water supplies, damaged ecosystems, and jeopardized citizens' health. Contamination cases have surfaced in states as diverse as Maryland, New Mexico, Indiana, Virginia, and Montana.  An interactive map on the project web site is searchable by zip code and shows the location of 446 landfills and disposal ponds, and the quantity of coal ash produced nearby, enabling users to identify coal ash sites near their communities.  

Coal Ash: The Hidden Story
features an extensive review and analysis of public documents obtained through Freedom of Information requests and archived agency documents; incorporates the perspectives of industry representatives, policymakers, environmental experts, and advocates; and includes video documenting the environmental and public health impact of the Tennessee coal ash disaster.  

Coal ash is the solid waste generated by the combustion of coal at more than 500 power plants nationwide. These plants generate approximately 130 million tons of coal ash each year, 43 percent of which is recycled into other materials, such as concrete, roofing tiles, and structural fill. The remaining 70 million tons, however, is dumped into 194 landfills and 161 ponds in 47 states, according to the latest data available from the Department of Energy. Estimates from the Environmental Protection Agency peg the number of coal-ash sites even higher, at 600, with an unknown number of sites where coal ash is dumped in mines. Moreover, the hazards of improper storage and disposal of coal ash on public health has been widely documented by the EPA. A July 2007 EPA investigation identified 63 coal ash landfills and ponds in 23 states where this toxic sludge is blamed for contaminating groundwater and the local ecology. Boron, arsenic, lead, and mercury are only a few of the 21 ingredients in the chemical cocktail that is coal ash, according to a 2006 EPA commissioned study by the National Academy of Sciences.  

"There is no more vivid example of the dangers posed by unregulated coal ash than the collapsed dam and resulting toxic deluge that struck Eastern Tennessee in December 2008," said Center for Public Integrity Executive Director Bill Buzenberg. "The Center for Public Integrity's investigation shows there are hundreds of such dumpsites across the country - more than 160 of coal ash ponds just like the one that collapsed in Tennessee. This danger is well known to the EPA. Our report sheds new light on why the EPA has been so ineffective in its attempt to regulate toxic coal ash."  

Despite copious evidence of coal ash's adverse impacts on public health and the environment, this hazardous and plentiful byproduct of burning coal is essentially unregulated at the federal level. Oversight is left mostly to the states. The Center's investigation reveals that arguments over federal oversight have flared for 28 years, most prominently in a furious interagency battle back in 2000. The back-and-forth back then tells a little-understood story about the raw politics and hard-edged cost-and-benefit analyses that often determined the outcome of federal environmental policy. And that story still resonates today, as lawmakers debate federal regulation again in the wake of the spill in Tennessee. 

Coal Ash: The Hidden Story is generously supported by a grant from the Deer Creek Foundation and is part of an ongoing investigative series on "clean coal" and climate change policy issues. In addition, organizational support for the Center is provided by Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Ford Foundation, the JEHT Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Park Foundation, the Popplestone Foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and many other generous institutional and individual donors.

The Center for Public Integrity is a nonprofit organization dedicated to producing original, responsible investigative journalism on issues of public concern. The Center is non-partisan and non-advocacy. We are committed to transparent and comprehensive reporting both in the United States and around the world.


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