Coal Ash: The Hidden Story

For Immediate Release

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 - 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.

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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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