Toxic Threats Loom Next to Our Rivers, Lakes, and Streams. What Can We Do About It?


Late last year, I took a trip with a friend to watch the demolition of the retired Mt. Tom coal-fired power plant in Holyoke, Massachusetts. We were there for the excitement of an explosive demolition (which was earsplittingly loud). But as we watched from across the Connecticut River, I was struck by how close the power plant sat to the banks of a river that’s so important to the region where I’ve always lived.

The Connecticut River is the longest river in New England. It runs through beautiful northeastern hills and countryside, and through small towns and big cities. The river is a critical habitat for the hundreds of thousands of fish that migrate there from the ocean each spring, and the watershed is home to wildlife including moose and bald eagles. The river is also a place where I’ve spent some time, including losing at least a couple high school crew races.

Over the years, the Mt. Tom coal plant put all that at risk. As Mt. Tom burned coal, it produced tens of thousands of tons of coal ash, which can contain toxic elements like arsenic, lead, and mercury. Much of that waste was kept in on-site ponds before being shipped elsewhere for disposal. What would have happened if something had gone wrong, and there had been a spill? How much of the river would have been contaminated and how many fish and birds would have died? Would the pollution have made it as far as Springfield, or Hartford? Would the spill have been as catastrophic as similar spills in North Carolina and Tennessee?

To gain a better understanding of the extent of toxic spill threats to American waterways, we have released Accidents Waiting to Happen: Toxic Threats to Our Rivers, Lakes, and Streams with Environment America Research & Policy Center. The report consists of analyses and threat descriptions of five categories of sites that threaten our waterways with the potential for toxic spills: industrial facilities, animal waste lagoons, oil transportation via rail and pipeline, fracking wastewater pits, and coal ash pits.

In much of the country, it is simply impossible to identify all the sites that pose these threats. We don’t know which rail lines carry oil shipments. Data on pipeline locations is inexact. Most industrial facilities don’t publicly report the type or quantity of toxic chemicals on site. Data on fracking wastewater pits is nonexistent in most states. But the data we do have, summarized in the report, paints a picture of a pervasive problem.

In New Jersey, one of the few states that makes data on industrial storage of toxic substances available to the public, there are more than 30 sites with at least five toxic storage units in flood zones. The Keystone Pipeline, one of the only pipelines for which high-resolution location information exists, crosses 2,370 waterways on its route across the U.S. In Pennsylvania, where the organization Skytruth did a satellite photo assessment of fracking wastewater pit locations, one in four pits is within a quarter-mile of a waterway. In North Carolina, where the Environmental Working Group and Waterkeeper Alliance did an analysis of agricultural waste lagoons, there are 170 hog waste lagoons within 100-year floodplain. And across the country, there are 181 coal plants with on-site ash pits that are within a quarter-mile of a waterway, and 26 in flood zones.

The threat of these sites is not hypothetical. Our report documents hundreds of spills and leaks, the worst of which resulted in catastrophic damage to waterways or loss of human life. Smaller, long-term leaks have likely impacted human health and the environment that may only become clear with time. The threat of spills will only increase as extreme weather becomes more common and more powerful with climate change. In just the last couple years, hurricanes Harvey and Florence caused damaging spills of agricultural waste, coal ash, and toxic chemicals.

So where do we go from here? There are of course policies that can protect waterways right now.  We can strengthen and enforce regulations on the storage and handling of toxic materials at existing sites, require industry to use safe chemical alternatives when they exist, and prevent new construction of risky sites by waterways. We can also start planning the closure and cleanup of existing sites. Many coal ash sites, for example, have been or are in the process of being closed and excavated.

Over the long term we should think bigger, and reduce the need for risky facilities to begin with – and that means, where possible, reducing demand for the products these facilities produce. That includes changes like shifting from fossil fuels to renewable energy, and limiting our use of disposable plastic products. Some changes will come easier by questioning the value these things add to our lives in the first place – do we really need the overload of cheap pork produced by feeding operations that rely on waste lagoons?

The coal plant demolition I watched last year wasn’t the first of its kind. In recent years, New England has seen one coal plant retire after another. A significant portion of that electricity generation has either been replaced by renewable energy or made unnecessary by energy efficiency and conservation – solutions that are both emission-free and pose no risk to rivers like the Connecticut. Just as we’ve begun to shift away from risky energy production here in the northeast and across the country, we can also shift away from toxic industry and polluting agriculture. Our waterways and our lives will be better off for it.

Image of Mt. Tom Station circa 1980: Holyoke Water Power Company via Wikimedia (CC-BY-3.0)