The Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) has released a report documenting the negative environmental effects resulting from the disposal of coal ash at 116 sites across the country. In the report, 49 power plants are implicated as being responsible for environmental harms at those sites, including groundwater contamination. The data behind the report was supplied by the United State Environmental Protection Agency, who responded to the EIP freedom of information request by revealing 28 as of yet unknown sites in West Virginia, Iowa, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas and Colorado that have been contaminated by coal ash.
Coal ash is generated by coal fired electric power plants, which create about 140 million tons of it a year nationally. Such ash contains many different kinds of chemicals, including arsenic, boron, cadmium, and manganese to name a few. Ash is typically stored, with no governmental regulation, at various disposal sites across the country; these sites can range from landfills to abandoned mines.
Coal ash contamination also deals with incredible health concerns – the Sierra Club itself has stated in its “Beyond Coal” campaign that living near a wet coal ash storage pond is more dangerous for one’s health than smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. In fact, the Sierra Club reports that persons living within 1 mile of an unlined coal ash pond have a 1 in 50 risk of cancer, a frightening statistic by any reckoning. This statistic is compounded when one considers that such risk is 2000 times higher than the EPA standard. As such, activists in problem areas have called for EPA to classify coal ash as a hazardous material, and regulate its disposal accordingly.
These calls, however, have not been successful as of yet. Of the 116 sites that have been revealed in EIP’s report, 28 have never been publicly revealed before. An additional 42 of the 92 power plants surveyed by EPA either provided no data aside from their assurances that they were not contaminating groundwater, or refused outright to provide the requested data. At least one of these plants has been reported by EIP as having been implicated as a source of pollution before. Efforts are underway at the EPA to propose environmental standards for coal ash disposal, but the EPA has not yet been able to issue any definitive rules for regulating coal ash. EIP’s Director, Eric Schaeffer has further stated that the EPA is deficient in regards to its data about groundwater quality next to coal ash sites, stating that the EPA is even ignoring preexisting data and making things easier for polluters.
EIP’s report is coming at an opportune time, namely at the tail end of contentious litigation in the House of Representatives. The Surface Transportation Act of 2012, as it is known, includes language in it that would prohibit the EPA from regulating coal ash. West Virginia Senator Jay Rockefeller has opposed the coal ash portions of the bill, but only due to his desire to preserve the jobs the act would create.