Uncovering a Hidden Threat
Coal ash is the toxic-laden waste left behind after coal is burned for energy. The waste is captured as it flies up the smoke stake, settles on the bottom of the coal boiler, or is the product of a reaction used to reduce air pollution from coal plants. Generally, regardless of the type of ash, it is collected and then transported to large lagoons or landfills where it is stored indefinitely. From these so-called coal ash ponds and landfills the ash contaminates the surface water, leaks into the groundwater and often blows into the air as fugitive dust.
Coal-fired power plants produce 140 million tons of fly ash, scrubber sludge, and other combustion wastes every year. Here in the Southeast, there are around 400 storage facilities for coal ash with a capacity to hold over 118.5 BILLION gallons of waste. The most risky of the coal ash storage facilities are wet ponds. In wet ponds the ash sits mixed with wastewater. The contaminants leach–essentially dissolve–into the water, which is then either poured into major waterbodies or slowly leaks through the soil into groundwater. Likewise, wet ponds rely on earthen dams to hold back ash and wastewater. These dams can leak or collapse all together as happened at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston coal plant in 2008. This type of catastrophic collapse is not only a pollution problem, the surge of waste can literally destroy homes and property.
The danger from coal ash is not just conjecture. Coal ash contaminants can severely damage human health and the environment. EPA’s draft risk assessment found the cancer risk from drinking water contaminated with arsenic from coal ash disposed in unlined ponds is as high as 1 in 50 children, which is 2,000 times EPA’s regulatory goal for acceptable cancer risk. Dry landfills can also pose dangers to drinking water and aquatic life, according to the EPA.
The toxic elements in coal ash include arsenic, lead, selenium, cadmium, mercury, boron, sulfate, barium, molybdenum and nickel, to name a few. Water contaminated with pollutants like these has been known to move more than a mile from coal ash dumpsites.
There are currently no federal safeguards for coal ash storage and disposal and state standards are both inconsistent and insufficient.
EPA coal ash pond hazard ratings
An EPA hazard rating system describes the likely consequences of a catastrophic dam collapse at most coal ash ponds across the country. Below are descriptions of the three rating-levels.
- High Hazard- Indicates that a dam failure is likely to cause loss of human life.
- Significant Hazard- Failure is likely to cause significant economic loss, environmental damage, or damage to infrastructure.
- Low Hazard- Failure would likely not result in loss of human life and would only result in low economic or environmental losses.
In 2009, EPA found that of the 629 ash ponds identified, only 431 were rated. Of those, around 50 had a “high hazard” rating and around 70 had a “significant hazard” rating.
Currently the Southeast is home to around 21 high hazard facilities and many more significant hazard facilities. You can check the rating of facilities near you on this website.