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Coal Detention Ponds Everywhere: A State to State Risk

February 28, 2009

Coal Ash: The Hidden Story

How Industry and the EPA Failed To Stop a Growing Environmental Disaster

By Kristen Lombardi | February 19, 2009

Pat Nees never liked the water at the Moose Lodge. Almost everyone in tiny Colstrip, Montana, drank and dined at Lodge #2190, but the well water was notorious — it smelled like a sewer. It felt oily, gritty from sediment. Lodge members braving a drink — Nees among them — frequently doubled over from indigestion.

Nees, 57, a board member at the lodge, fielded numerous complaints about the water. But he and fellow Moose members, many of them equipment operators and technicians at the nearby Colstrip Steam Electric Station, a giant coal-fired power plant, never thought twice about the massive waste ponds a half mile away.

They never fathomed they were drinking water laced with coal ash.

Coal ash is the collective term for the various solid remnants left over from burning the black rock to produce electricity at more than 500 power plants nationwide. The ash amounts to dirty stuff, replete with toxic constituents — arsenic, chromium, lead, mercury, and many others — that can wreak havoc on the environment and human health. Exposure to its toxins can lead to cancer, birth defects, gastro-intestinal illnesses, and reproductive problems.

imageCoal Ash Country: Power plant wastes fill ponds and landfills nationwide. Explore the locations of these sites byclicking here and searching by zip code.

For decades, the dangers of coal ash had largely been hidden from public view. That all changed in December 2008, when an earthen dam holding a billion gallons of coal ash in a pond collapsed in eastern Tennessee, deluging 300 acres in gray muck, destroying houses and water supplies, and dirtying a river.

But what happened in the Volunteer State represents just a small slice of the potential threat from coal ash. In many states — at ponds, landfills, and pits where coal ash gets dumped — a slow seepage of the ash’s metals has poisoned water supplies, damaged ecosystems, and jeopardized citizens’ health. In July 2007, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency identified 63 “proven or potential damage cases” in 23 states where coal ash has tarnished groundwater and harmed ecology. Additional cases of contamination have since surfaced in states as far-flung as Maryland, New Mexico, Indiana, and Virginia. And in some locations, like Colstrip, the contamination has resulted in multimillion-dollar payouts to residents enduring the devastation.

Despite the litany of damage, there’s no meaningful federal regulation of coal ash on the books; indeed, oversight of ash disposal — much of it stunningly casual — is largely left to the states. Argument over EPA’s potential role in regulating the waste has flared for 28 years, most prominently in a furious inter-agency battle back in 2000. The machinations back then tell a little-understood story about the raw politics and hard-edged cost-benefit analyses that often determine the outcome of national environmental policy. And that story still resonates today, as the U.S. coal industry engages in a massive publicity campaign pitching “clean coal” as a solution to both global warming and energy independence. In the wake of the Tennessee spill, as fervent new demands for action ring out on Capitol Hill, the debate over federal regulation of coal ash is flaring anew. But the outcome of that debate remains far from certain.

To read the full report: Coal Ash: The Hidden Story

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