Tuesday, September 01, 2009

FOIA Information Reveals More Problems With Coal Ash Sites

Aug 31: According to a release from the nonprofit law firm Earthjustice, U.S. EPA has released information to environmental groups about America’s toxic coal ash dumps after months of data collection and inquiry. The groups, after a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, discovered that there are 584 coal ash dump sites across the country -- almost twice as many as previously identified. These sites pose significant cancer and health risks that so far have gone unchecked. The groups said that because the EPA does not regulate the waste from coal-fired power plants, the agency had no information on the location and nature of the 584 wet ash dumps located throughout the EPA has acknowledged that wet disposal of coal ash presents a greater risk to human health and the environment than dry landfills because hazardous chemicals are more likely to migrate from such dumps and the large impoundments present a risk of catastrophic failure.

On June 30, 2009, following pressure from legislators and environmental organizations [
See WIMS 6/22/09], EPA posted a list of 44 “high hazard potential” impoundments containing coal combustion residuals, commonly referred to as coal ash, at 26 different coal burning electric utility facilities [See WIMS 6/30/09]. The groups indicated that the FOIA data the obtained note ownership, location, hazard potential, year commissioned, type and quantity of coal combustion waste disposed, dates of the last regulatory or company assessment, and in some instances whether an unregulated discharge of coal ash had occurred. Some critical data were not included because companies claimed the data as "Confidential Business Information."

According to a release, states with coal ash sites included in the list are: Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Mississippi, Montana, North Carolina, North Dakota, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Wisconsin, West Virginia, and Wyoming. Lisa Evans, an attorney at Earthjustice said, "There is no lingering doubt, these coal ash dumps are dangerous and must be regulated immediately. The EPA list provides a clear view of the substantial extent of the threat. Now the agency needs to take the next step and ensure that communities are informed and protected against the possibility of another TVA-like tragedy."

On March 9, the EPA sent letters to hundreds of power generating facilities requesting information about coal ash surface impoundments [
See WIMS 3/10/9]. The letters were in response to the disaster that occurred on December 22, 2008, at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston Fossil Plant in Harriman, TN [See WIMS 1/9/09]. Over 1 billion gallons of coal ash sludge flooded 300 acres in and near the Emory River when a dike at a coal ash pond collapsed, destroying homes and property and poisoning surrounding waters and wildlife.

The groups said the FOIA data just released reveal the problems are much more widespread than EPA previously thought. The wet disposal of coal ash and affect communities in 35 states, with concentrations of dangerous dumps in the Midwest, Appalachia, Intermountain West and Southeast. The data reveal that the majority of dump sites are over three decades old -- raising questions about the structural integrity of their dams and whether the waste ponds are adequately lined. Most older dump sites are not lined to prevent the migration of harmful chemicals to drinking water. The data reveal also that regulatory inspections of these dams by state and federal agencies are infrequent or non-existent.

EPA's data also indicate that many of the wet dumps are very large, with over a hundred exceeding 50 acres, including numerous sites comprising several hundred acres. Furthermore the largest dumps tend to be the older sites with the least amount of protection. The groups said, "The problems are likely underestimated by the present data set because companies like Duke Energy, Alabama Power, Georgia Power and Progress Energy have withheld information on 74 dump sites, including some of the largest dump sites in the U.S, claiming the information is 'confidential business information.'"

The groups said that despite the obvious threats posed by coal ash dumps, 25 senators (nine Democrats and 16 Republicans) signed a letter supporting Federal regulation that would let the utility companies off the hook. Mary Anne Hitt, Deputy Director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign said, "Research has made it clear that coal ash is becoming increasingly toxic. In fact the cancer risk of people living near some coal ash sites is a staggering 1 in 50. Despite those chilling statistics, there are still no federal rules in place for safe disposal of coal ash. Coal ash should be treated like the hazardous substance it is, governed by strong rules to protect communities and hold the coal industry accountable for the risks posed by its toxic waste."

Access a lengthy release from Earthjustice with links to the FOIA data and related information (click here). Access information from EPA on the list of the units and other information related to coal ash (click here). Access EPA's Fossil Fuel Combustion Waste website for more information (click here). Access EPA's Coal Ash request website with links to the letter, facilities, corporations, Environmental Council of the States, and more (click here).