It's Time To Clean Up Toxic Coal Ash
The U.S. EPA May Finally Tackle A Regulatory Loophole That Has Allowed Coal Plants To Evade Cleaning Up Their Toxic Mess. But Your Voice Is Needed!
Coal ash… Where do I begin?
It’s another toxic by-product causing harm to our waterways and thus, to environments and people.
Put simply: Coal ash is the leftover waste from power companies burning coal used to generate electricity.
Your voice is needed to clean up coal ash: The U.S. EPA is finally addressing a regulatory loophole that allowed coal plants to evade cleaning up their toxic coal ash mess—and wants to hear from you. The draft rule leaves some coal ash dumps unregulated. Help protect all communities. Submit your comment by Jul. 17, 2023.
This toxic mix of hazardous pollutants includes arsenic, cobalt, chromium, lead, lithium, mercury, radium, and other heavy metals. Sounds gross, right? Well, these same pollutants are associated with many health issues like cancer, heart and thyroid disease, reproductive failure, and neurological harm. Yikes!
Coal ash, also called coal combustion residuals or CCRs, is one of the largest types of industrial waste generated in this country. U.S. coal plants continue to produce more than 70 million tons of coal ash every year.
What to do with these leftovers? Power plants discharge it into unlined ponds, structural fills, landfills, or nearby waterways with a water discharge permit. And at many dumpsites, toxic coal ash has contaminated drinking water supplies.
Two major disasters brought more attention to coal ash.
In 2008 near Knoxville, Tennessee, a levee along a mountain of sodden ash suddenly broke loose from the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston power plant. The toxic ash spilled into two rivers. In the years since, hundreds of cleanup workers became ill, and many have died.
Then in 2014, tens of thousands of tons of coal ash spilled from a Duke Energy power plant into the Dan River at Eden, North Carolina, causing damage for 70 miles downstream. The Southern energy giant reached an agreement in January 2021 to pay $1.1 billion attributed to clean up costs in North Carolina’s coal ash basins. However, the one-time settlement remains controversial because it leaves an outstanding $3 billion unpaid.
Of course, it’s not just the big catastrophes that cause problems.
Often the damage from coal ash dumping is slow and not discovered until people get sick or communities speak out. Unregulated coal ash can be a big problem for people who get their drinking water from private wells. Someone could test well water for other contaminants and get clean results. Oftentimes, residents have no idea that an unlined coal ash pond is near their home, unless they know what to test for.
In North Carolina, residents living near Duke coal ash ponds received “do not drink” letters from state regulators in 2015, noting that their well water tested positive for unsafe levels of hexavalent chromium. But that standard was later overturned by political appointees at the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) who worked for then governor Pat McCrory, an employee of Duke Energy for 28 years.
In 2015, the U.S. EPA adopted the first national regulations for coal ash, which applied to all existing and new coal ash sites. But the regs exempted landfills, ponds, and waste piles that had already closed, leaving about half of all the coal combustion waste ever produced in the U.S. unregulated, or more than a billion tons. These so-called “legacy” dumps were not included in any monitoring, inspection, maintenance, closure, cleanup, or reporting requirements.
This loophole allowed the companies who profited the most from burning coal to walk away from the toxic dumps they created. Who cleans up the mess as more coal plants get retired? You guessed it. American taxpayers.
A new rule looks to close the gap.
The EPA published a new draft rule to extend federal oversight to more of the coal ash disposed at both operating and retired power plants. Finally. The agency could also tighten their enforcement of the current regs (IMO).
The proposed rule would extend federal monitoring, closure, and cleanup requirements to hundreds of previously excluded older landfills, legacy ponds and fill sites.
And they are taking public comment for a few more days….
There’s also a virtual public hearing online tomorrow: Wed., July 12 (9am–6pm ET). Register here to join.
EarthJustice has put together a great guide to help you testify here.
I encourage everyone let the EPA know that this issue is important to you. Across the country, power plant owners have avoided cleaning up coal ash, which has left an estimated 91 percent of coal plants with water contaminated above federal safe standards. The EPA must ensure that communities are protected through this new rule, and the EPA must enforce these safeguards.
Researchers continue to study coal ash to understand the toxic elements that leach out of it.
In a new paper published in the journal Environmental Science: Nano, researchers at Duke University (how ironic) found that the toxicity of various ash stockpiles relies heavily on its nanoscale structures, which can vary widely between sources.
Using one of the most advanced synchrotron light sources in the world, the National Synchrotron Light Source II at Brookhaven National Laboratory, the authors show that, at least for selenium and arsenic, the amount of toxic elements able to escape from coal ash depends largely on their nanoscale structures.
“These results show just how complex coal ash is as a material,” said Helen Hsu-Kim, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Duke University. “For example, we saw arsenic and selenium either attached to the surface of fine grain particles or encapsulated within them, which explains why these elements leach out of some coal ash sources more readily than others.”
The results may help researchers predict which coal ash is most environmentally dangerous, which will hopefully help more communities that are dealing with this mess.
Is there a coal ash dump near you? Check out the coal ash state fact sheets and learn about coal ash dumpsites in 31 states and Puerto Rico.
Don’t forget to add your voice to the new proposed regulations to extend federal monitoring, closure, and cleanup requirements to legacy dumpsites for coal ash.
Tell the EPA to make polluters clean up all coal ash at current and former power plant sites. EPA should finalize these new, important protections, even if industry opposes them.
Written comments must be submitted by Mon., July 17, 2023. Submit a written comment.