Dumping Toxic Waste
Every year, the nation’s coal plants produce 140 million tons of coal ash pollution, the toxic by-product that is left over after the coal is burned. All that ash has to go somewhere, so it’s dumped in the backyards of power plants across the nation, into open-air pits and precarious surface waste ponds. Many of these sites lack adequate safeguards, leaving nearby communities at risk from potential large-scale disasters like the massive coal ash spill in Tennessee in 2008, and from gradual yet equally dangerous contamination as coal ash toxins seep into drinking water sources or are blown into nearby communities.
Coal ash pollution contains high levels of toxic heavy metals such as arsenic, lead, selenium, and hexavalent chromium. The public health hazards and environmental threats to nearby communities from unsafe coal ash dumping have been known for many years, including increased risk of cancer, learning disabilities, neurological disorders, birth defects, reproductive failure, asthma, and other illnesses.
Coal ash is not subject to federal protections, and state laws governing coal combustion waste disposal are usually weak or non-existent. The result: millions of tons of coal ash are being stored in ponds, landfills, and abandoned mines. Many of these sites lack adequate safeguards, leaving nearby communities at risk from potential large scale disasters like the December 22, 2008, TVA disaster in Tennessee in which a dike holding back decades’ worth of coal ash failed at the Kingston Fossil Plant, flooding the surrounding residential area with more than one billion gallons of toxic coal ash—enough to flood more than 3,000 acres one foot deep.
While dramatic events like the coal ash spills in Tennessee garner national media attention, dangerous contaminants are quietly seeping from coal ash dumps into groundwater supplies across the country or blowing into the air of communities, exposing people and wildlife to toxic substances. EPA data indicates that at least 535 coal ash ponds operate without a simple liner to prevent dangerous chemicals and heavy metals from reaching drinking water sources.
The Hazards of Coal Ash
Living near a wet coal ash storage pond is significantly more dangerous than smoking a pack of cigarettes a day, according to a risk assessment done by the EPA. The toxins found in coal ash have been linked to organ disease, cancer, respiratory illness, neurological damage, and developmental problems. People living within 1 mile of unlined coal ash ponds can have a 1 in 50 risk of cancer—more than 2,000 times higher than what the EPA considers acceptable.
Coal ash contains arsenic, lead, mercury, and selenium, as well as aluminum, barium, boron, and chlorine. All can be toxic. Particularly where there is prolonged exposure, these toxins can cause cancer, heart damage, lung disease, respiratory distress, kidney disease, reproductive problems, gastrointestinal illness, birth defects, impaired bone growth in children, and behavioral problems. In short, coal ash toxics have the potential to injure all of the major organ systems in adults (including pregnant women) and children alike.
Exposure to toxic coal ash can lower birth rates, cause tissue disease, slow development and even kill plants and animals, leading to changes in wildlife concentrations and disruptions in entire ecosystems. The toxic pollution from coal ash builds up in exposed animals and plants, causing the pollution to make its way up the food chain when they are eaten. Children are more susceptible to the health impacts of coal ash—and according to the EPA, 1.54 million children live near coal ash storage sites. Not only is coal ash toxic, it is likely to grow increasingly dangerous.
Air pollution control technologies—scrubbers, selective catalytic reduction, and activated carbon injection technologies to capture mercury and other hazardous air pollutants—capture an increasing proportion of the coal pollutants that would otherwise go up the smokestacks. When those pollutants are captured, they are shifted from the air to the coal ash. Mercury and other pollutants that previously contributed to air pollution are now becoming solid wastes—and when they leach into water, their toxicity is carried into the water as well. Unfortunately, one toxic environmental problem is being traded for another.
The Sierra Club continues to work with affected citizens, state governments, Congress, and the EPA to ensure that safegaurds will be placed on coal ash pollution to address this growing problem. We work toward concrete assurances for protecting our water sources and air quality, and any regulations on coal ash must be truly protective of the health of our communities and our environment.
Visit our Coal Ash Map to see locations of just some of the coal ash waste sites across the country.