Quantcast
Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Data Reveals More Dangerous Coal Ash Ponds

Data Reveals More Dangerous Coal Ash Ponds

Earthjustice

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) latest release of data concerning coal ash ponds reveals a threefold increase in the number of significant-hazard rated coal ash ponds. This nightmare scenario comes as legislation passed by the House of Representatives and introduced in the Senate proposes to completely castrate the EPA’s ability to set federally enforceable safeguards for proper coal ash disposal.

“Coal ash ponds are threatening hundreds of communities and their drinking water supplies, but the current approach in Congress is to ignore the problem and hope it goes away,” said Earthjustice attorney Lisa Evans.

The EPA is rating coal ash ponds according to a National Inventory of Dams (NID) criteria that categorizes the ponds by the damage that would occur if the pond collapses. Coal ash ponds are usually earthen structures holding back millions of tons of toxic coal ash and water. This month, the EPA recently released a new set of data that reveals 181 significant hazard dams in 18 states. This is more than three times the 60 significant-hazard ponds listed in the original database released in 2009. In addition to the increase in the number of significant hazard-rated ponds, eight of the previously unrated coal ash ponds were found to be high hazard ponds in information released by the EPA earlier this year. Because of the switch in ratings after the EPA inspections, the total number of high hazard ponds has stayed roughly the same at a total of 47 ponds nationwide.

Because coal ash ponds are not federally regulated and are largely unregulated by states, there is usually no requirement to classify the ponds, no matter how large they are. After the catastrophic collapse of the TVA Kingston Fossil Plant’s coal ash pond in December 2008, the EPA requested information from all coal ash pond owners through the issuance of an information request letter in March 2009. The Tennessee pond collapse released over a billion gallons of toxic sludge, which flooded 300 acres, destroyed and damaged dozens of homes, and left TVA with a cleanup cost of more than $1 billion.

The initial response to the EPA in 2009 from utilities owning coal ash ponds revealed that hundreds of coal ash ponds were not rated according to the NID criteria. Some of the ponds without ratings were even larger than the six-story pond that failed in Tennessee. Consequently, since 2009, the EPA has been requesting additional information from owners and conducting inspections of the largest of the nation’s 676 coal ash ponds.

According to the NID criteria, high hazard coal ash ponds are categorized as such because their failure will likely cause loss of human life. Significant hazard dams can cause economic loss, environment damage, disruption of lifeline facilities, or impact other concerns. Low hazard dams are those where failure or mis-operation results in no probable loss of human life and low economic and/or environmental losses that are principally limited to the owner’s property.

Six states that gained high hazard ponds include:

  • Kentucky—Mill Creek Station, Louisville—1 high hazard pond
  • Ohio—Kyger Creek Station, Gallipolis—2 high hazard ponds
  • Indiana—Eagle Valley Generating Station, Indianapolis—1 high hazard pond
  • Harding Street Power Station, Indianapolis—2 high hazard ponds
  • R. M. Schahfer Power Station, Wheatfield—2 high hazard ponds
  • Missouri—Sikeston Power Station, Sikeston—1 high hazard pond
  • Pennsylvania—WPS Energy Services, Shamokin Dam—1 high hazard pond
  • Alabama—Ernest Gaston Electric Generations Plant, Wilsonville—1 high hazard pond

Eight of these 11 newly characterized high-hazard ponds (almost three quarters of those inspected) received a poor inspection rating from EPA after their discovery and inspection.

Eighteen states gained significant hazard ponds: Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Missouri, Mississippi, Montana, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, South Carolina, Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming. Forty-two of the 112 newly identified significant hazard ponds (about one third) received a poor rating after inspection by the EPA.

The sharp increase in coal ash ponds likely to cause significant damage if they should fail should give the Senate pause as they consider S.1751, a bill that will allow coal ash ponds to operate indefinitely without adequate safeguards. The bill does not require coal ash pond phase out, nor does it require ponds to comply with basic safety requirements established in 1978 by Mine Health and Safety Administration (MHSA) after the deadly collapse of the Buffalo Creek coal slurry impoundment, which killed over a hundred people in WV in 1972. The Senate bill does not even mandate the most basic engineering standard for pond safety—the maintenance and design of ponds for the maximum amount of toxic cargo they will hold. In fact the bill explicitly allows coal ash ponds to contain more toxic sludge than they were designed to contain.

“The current agenda in Congress is to attack public health protections on behalf of dirty industries with a long history of failing to clean up their mess,” Evans added. “For every day this House has been in session, there has been a vote to curtail EPA protections. That is absolutely unconscionable. Too many Americans live near toxic coal ash dumps and unless federal action is taken soon, another TVA disaster is just waiting to happen. We shouldn’t have to wait for more destruction or loss of life to act.”

For more information, click here.

Plastic bails, left, and aluminum bails, right, are photographed at the Green Waste material recovery facility on Thursday, March 28, 2019, in San Jose, California. Aric Crabb / Digital First Media / Bay Area News via Getty Images

By Courtney Lindwall

Coined in the 1970s, the classic Earth Day mantra "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle" has encouraged consumers to take stock of the materials they buy, use, and often quickly pitch — all in the name of curbing pollution and saving the earth's resources. Most of us listened, or lord knows we tried. We've carried totes and refused straws and dutifully rinsed yogurt cartons before placing them in the appropriately marked bins. And yet, nearly half a century later, the United States still produces more than 35 million tons of plastic annually, and sends more and more of it into our oceans, lakes, soils, and bodies.

Read More Show Less
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
Rise and Resist activist group marched together to demand climate and racial justice. Steve Sanchez / Pacific Press / LightRocket / Getty Images

By Alexandria Villaseñor

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

My journey to becoming an activist began in late 2018. During a trip to California to visit family, the Camp Fire broke out. At the time, it was the most devastating and destructive wildfire in California history. Thousands of acres and structures burned, and many lives were lost. Since then, California's wildfires have accelerated: This past year, we saw the first-ever "gigafire," and by the end of 2020, more than four million acres had burned.

Read More Show Less
Trending
U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced a pair of climate-related secretarial orders on Friday, April 16. U.S. Department of the Interior

By Jessica Corbett

As the Biden administration reviews the U.S. government's federal fossil fuels program and faces pressure to block any new dirty energy development, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland won praise from environmentalists on Friday for issuing a pair of climate-related secretarial orders.

Read More Show Less
David Attenborough narrates "The Year Earth Changed," premiering globally April 16 on Apple TV+. Apple

Next week marks the second Earth Day of the coronavirus pandemic. While a year of lockdowns and travel restrictions has limited our ability to explore the natural world and gather with others for its defense, it is still possible to experience the wonder and inspiration from the safety of your home.

Read More Show Less

By Michael Svoboda

For April's bookshelf we take a cue from Earth Day and step back to look at the bigger picture. It wasn't climate change that motivated people to attend the teach-ins and protests that marked that first observance in 1970; it was pollution, the destruction of wild lands and habitats, and the consequent deaths of species.

Read More Show Less