EPA reveals hundreds of new coal ash sites nationwide

Environmental groups said June 26 that information they obtained that day from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency shows the existence of hundreds of previously unknown coal ash dumps nationwide.

The information from EPA was obtained under a Freedom of Information Act request (FOIA) by the Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice. The data reveals that there are at least 451 more coal ash ponds than previously acknowledged. The EPA had admitted to 710 ponds, and the new numbers increase that total to at least 1,161, the groups said.

In addition, the agency previously did not know how many ponds were unlined. The new data indicate that at least 535 ponds (46%) operate without a groundwater-protective liner, the groups added. While 562 ponds are recorded as having a liner (64 plants did not answer the question), the EPA has not yet released data regarding what kind of liner is employed. Only a composite liner is sufficient to prevent the escape of dangerous contaminants, and the EPA has estimated that the use of composite liners at coal ash ponds is very low, the groups said.

“The public health threat from toxic coal ash continues to grow,” said Earthjustice attorney Lisa Evans. “The data today reveal that coal ash is being disposed in hundreds of units that are not fit to contain hazardous chemicals. The increased danger posed by coal ash dumps underscores the need for EPA to act. Congressional attempts to cater to the polluters and deny the EPA the authority to protect millions of Americans living near these sites is dangerous and misguided.”

Notable is that a provision that would have stopped EPA from considering coal ash as a hazardous pollutant has just been stripped out of a transportation funding bill agreed to by a House-Senate conference committee. The GOP-controlled House had included the ash measure in its version of the bill. In 2010, EPA proposed two possibilities – regulating ash as a regular waste or as a toxic waste – but has not yet rendered a final decision.

The new data also reveal a significant increase in the number of coal ash landfills, the environmental groups said. In 2010, the EPA estimated that there were approximately 337 coal ash landfills, and the agency admitted that it did not know how many of these dumps had basic controls such as liners, they added. “Today we know that there are at least 393 coal ash landfills (active, planned, and retired), 43 percent of the active and retired landfills lack liners; 52 percent of these active and retired landfills lack leachate collection systems,” the groups said.

“The new EPA data confirms that we are just beginning to realize the threat coal ash dumps pose to drinking water supplies and the health of nearby communities,” said Lisa Widawsky Hallowell, attorney, Environmental Integrity Project. “Unlined ponds and landfills leach the toxic pollutants in coal ash – including known carcinogens like arsenic – into drinking water supplies and waterways, placing communities and the environment at risk. Federal standards are long overdue, yet Congress has tried to strip the EPA of its authority to require, and enforce, basic safeguards.”

The EPA has apparently not revealed the existence of all of the nation’s coal ash dumps, the groups said. According to the agency, many utilities made a “confidential business information” claim on the information they submitted, and the agency is unable to release this information until it decides that data related to waste management would not be protected. The EPA received this information from electric utilities under a 2010 information request it sent related to hundreds of coal-fired power plants.

As an example, the first power plant on the 22-page list is the Barry coal plant in Alabama (the list goes alphabetically by state) of Alabama Power, a unit of Southern Co. (NYSE: SO). The list shows two ponds at Barry, with one lined and one not lined. There is no answer for either pond on the status of that facility.

About Barry Cassell 20414 Articles
Barry Cassell is Chief Analyst for GenerationHub covering coal and emission controls issues, projects and policy. He has covered the coal and power generation industry for more than 24 years, beginning in November 2011 at GenerationHub and prior to that as editor of SNL Energy’s Coal Report. He was formerly with Coal Outlook for 15 years as the publication’s editor and contributing writer, and prior to that he was editor of Coal & Synfuels Technology and associate editor of The Energy Report. He has a bachelor’s degree from Central Michigan University.