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Coal Ash Ponds: An Unacceptable Risk at Water’s Edge

Ten years ago, one million tons of toxic waste spilled into the Clinch and Emory Rivers in Tennessee, forcing evacuations, devastating a river and a community, and, as alleged by a recently-filed lawsuit, causing the eventual deaths of at least 30 cleanup workers. The waste came not from an oil pipeline or a fracking site, but from a coal plant.

With coal plants, the most obvious pollution is the stuff that’s going into the air – the plumes of smoke containing soot, mercury and arsenic that coat our homes and damage our lungs. But when coal is burned, much of the waste doesn’t end up in the air. It ends up left over as piles of toxic ash. That ash is the focus of our newest report: Accidents Waiting to Happen: Coal Ash Ponds Put Our Waterways at Risk.

Coal plants produce 107 million tons of coal ash each year – an amount equivalent to 40 percent of the weight of all municipal waste generated by all Americans. Coal ash is highly toxic, containing pollutants that can damage circulatory, respiratory and digestive systems and lead to neurological and reproductive problems. Some of these pollutants also accumulate up the food chain. Coal ash can also contain the residue from coal plant “scrubbers” that capture heavy metals and other toxic air pollutants, shifting the threat from air to ash.

Storing coal ash is inherently risky. But one type of storage in particular increases the threat to waterways: coal ash ponds, in which ash is mixed with water and left sitting in ponds that are frequently unlined and uncovered. Because coal plants are usually located near sources of water for cooling, these coal ash ponds can be located right on the banks of waterways, with just a narrow earthen dam as a barrier.

Coals ash ponds frequently spill and leak, with reported spills and leaks numbering in the hundreds. The worst spills, like a 39,000-ton spill in North Carolina in 2014, or the aforementioned million-ton spill in Tennessee in 2008, can devastate ecosystems and communities and pose enormous risk to human health.

In Accidents Waiting to Happen, we analyzed the locations of coal ash ponds around the country to find the ponds that pose a particular threat to American waterways. We found 14 coal plants with ash ponds – at least 36 ponds in total – that are located in FEMA 100-year flood zones, indicating both proximity to water and the risk of overflowing during a flood.

The Ohio River seems to be at particular risk. Our analysis found six coal plants with ash ponds located on the banks of the Ohio. Five of those plants are home to ash ponds that the EPA found pose a “high” or “significant” hazard. These ash ponds threaten a river that provides drinking water to 3 million people and is home to vulnerable ecosystems and wildlife.

Coal ash ponds are relics of an energy system that no longer makes any sense. Burning, extracting and transporting coal threaten our health and environment in countless ways. That tradeoff may have seemed acceptable when there was no other choice – but today, choices abound for generating energy from clean, renewable sources.

Under even the best circumstances, coal ash ponds pose a grave risk. Yet today, the Trump administration is moving to roll back even the modest rules provided for minimal levels of monitoring and protection. (Our co-authors at Environment America submitted the report as a comment on the rollback proposal.) The only way to truly end the threat of spills is to phase out coal altogether – and to move toward an energy system that is clean, renewable, and safe. Until then, strong rules to ensure the highest possible ash pond safety, and to require their closure and excavation, are necessary to protect the public and the environment.

Image: Sluice lines entering “Pond 5” at the J.M. Stuart Station, located in an Ohio River flood zone. Pond 5 was found by an EPA assessment to be in “Poor” condition, and to pose a “Significant” hazard to the surrounding area. Credit: EPA