The Progressive


A project of Common Dreams

For Immediate Release

Jared Saylor, Earthjustice, (202) 667-4500, ext. 213

EPA Data Reveal Far Reach of Toxic Coal Ash Threats

Details from 584 coal ash sites in 35 states finally released; public health at risk


The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has just unveiled information
to environmental groups about America's toxic coal ash dumps after
months of data collection and inquiry. The groups, after a Freedom of
Information Act request, discovered late last Friday that there are 584
coal ash dump sites across the country -- almost twice as many as
previously identified. These sites pose significant cancer and health
risks that so far have gone unchecked.

Because the EPA does not regulate the waste from coal-fired power
plants, the agency had no information on the location and nature of the
584 wet ash dumps located throughout the EPA has acknowledged that wet
disposal of coal ash presents a greater risk to human health and the
environment than dry landfills because hazardous chemicals are more
likely to migrate from such dumps and the large impoundments present a
risk of catastrophic failure.

The EPA data note ownership, location, hazard potential, year
commissioned, type and quantity of coal combustion waste disposed,
dates of the last regulatory or company assessment, and in some
instances whether an unregulated discharge of coal ash had occurred.
Some critical data were not included because companies claimed the data
as "Confidential Business Information."

States with coal ash sites included in the list are: Alabama,
Arkansas, Arizona, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Iowa,
Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts,
Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Mississippi, Montana, North
Carolina, North Dakota, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma,
Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia,
Wisconsin, West Virginia, and Wyoming.

"There is no lingering doubt, these coal ash dumps are dangerous and
must be regulated immediately," said Lisa Evans, an attorney at
Earthjustice. "The EPA list provides a clear view of the substantial
extent of the threat. Now the agency needs to take the next step and
ensure that communities are informed and protected against the
possibility of another TVA-like tragedy."

On March 9, the EPA sent letters to hundreds of power generating facilities
requesting information about coal ash surface impoundments. The letters
were in response to the disaster that occurred on December 22, 2008, at
the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston Fossil Plant in Harriman, TN.
Over 1 billion gallons of coal ash sludge flooded 300 acres in and near
the Emory River when a dike at a coal ash pond collapsed, destroying
homes and property and poisoning surrounding waters and wildlife.

"Recovery from this massive spill will take years, and the price tag
for the clean up continues to grow," said Lyndsay Moseley, Sierra Club
representative and Tennessee native. "It was a stark reminder that coal
is not clean or cheap, and this information should prompt improved
safety practices and regulation of coal ash sites across the country."

The data released last Friday reveal the problems are much more
widespread than EPA previously thought. The wet disposal of coal ash
and affect communities in 35 states, with concentrations of dangerous
dumps in the Midwest, Appalachia, Intermountain West and Southeast. The
data reveal that the majority of dump sites are over three decades old
-- raising questions about the structural integrity of their dams and
whether the waste ponds are adequately lined. Most older dump sites are
not lined to prevent the migration of harmful chemicals to drinking
water. The data reveal also that regulatory inspections of these dams
by state and federal agencies are infrequent or non-existent.

EPA's data also indicate that many of the wet dumps are very large,
with over a hundred exceeding 50 acres, including numerous sites
comprising several hundred acres. Furthermore the largest dumps tend to
be the older sites with the least amount of protection. The problems
are likely underestimated by the present data set because companies
like Duke Energy, Alabama Power, Georgia Power and Progress Energy have
withheld information on 74 dump sites, including some of the largest
dump sites in the U.S, claiming the information is "confidential
business information."

"Some utilities -- notably the Duke and Southern Companies -- are
hiding the ball, withholding data on their ash ponds that their
competitors have already provided to EPA," said Eric Schaeffer,
executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project. "Let's hope
that EPA's enforcement program puts a stop to these bogus claims of
'confidentiality,' and compels the disclosure of data that companies
are required to report."

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson has said the agency is developing
rules to govern disposal and storage of coal ash, and expects a
proposal by the end of this year. Coal ash sites contain harmful levels
of arsenic, lead, mercury and other toxins, which can leach out, slowly
contaminating drinking water sources. Recently the EPA identified 49
"high hazard" sites, whose failure would be likely to cause loss of
life, after an information request by Earthjustice, Sierra Club and
EIP. These sites had been deemed by the Department of Homeland Security
to pose such a threat to nearby communities that they revealing their
location had been deemed a national security risk.

"This is a wake up call to the EPA to regulate coal ash as a
hazardous waste and protect our health and environment," Evans said.
"Communities have a right to know the dangers posed by these largely
unlined, unmonitored, and uninspected impoundments. Increased cancer
risks, poisoned drinking water supplies, the possibility of a lingering
threat for decades all mean that the EPA must regulate coal ash as
hazardous waste to ensure that all communities are protected."

But despite the obvious threats posed by coal ash dumps, 25 senators
(nine Democrats and 16 Republicans) signed a letter supporting federal
regulation that would let the utility companies off the hook.

"Research has made it clear that coal ash is becoming increasingly
toxic. In fact the cancer risk of people living near some coal ash
sites is a staggering 1 in 50," said Mary Anne Hitt, Deputy Director of
the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign. "Despite those chilling
statistics, there are still no federal rules in place for safe disposal
of coal ash. Coal ash should be treated like the hazardous substance it
is, governed by strong rules to protect communities and hold the coal
industry accountable for the risks posed by its toxic waste."

Earthjustice is a non-profit public interest law firm dedicated to protecting the magnificent places, natural resources, and wildlife of this earth, and to defending the right of all people to a healthy environment. We bring about far-reaching change by enforcing and strengthening environmental laws on behalf of hundreds of organizations, coalitions and communities.