EPA Discloses Toxic Coal Ash Sites

by Brian Turnbaugh*, 9/1/2009

In response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request from several environmental groups, the EPA released a list of 584 coal ash dump sites around the country. Coal ash is the toxic leftover waste from coal-fired power plants. The list identifies wet coal ash dumps, which are more dangerous than dry landfills because they are more vulnerable to leaks, overflows, and failures. The information is central to protecting public health and the environment. Last December, a dike failed at a Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) coal ash dump. The spill at the Kingston Fossil Plant in Harriman, TN sent more than 1 billion gallons of toxic sludge flowing into the nearby community and the Emory River.

EPA does not regulate this toxic waste. In response to the TVA spill and congressional pressure, the new EPA administrator agreed to research how many coal ash dumps there are and consider how to regulate them. With no existing federal regulations, the EPA had no data to analyze.

Communities living near or downstream from these coal ash dumps have a right to know if their homes are in danger of the same fate that befell those near the TVA catastrophe. Moreover, EPA states that this information is:

...important to States, local officials, including first responders, and the residents of local communities so that appropriate preparedness efforts can be undertaken, reviewed, or maintained. Many States have active dam safety programs and, in many cases, local government agencies, first responders, and the local community are involved in preparedness efforts. By providing this information, EPA's goal is to assist in these efforts.

In March, EPA sent a survey to hundreds of coal power plants requesting data on their dump sites. In June, following a turf scuffle with the obsessively secretive Department of Homeland Security, EPA disclosed the locations of 44 of the "high hazard" sites, which are those whose failure would probably cause the loss of human lives. The list just released as a result of the FOIA request is a more complete list. EPA should quickly post these additional locations on its website.

However, some power companies still do not think the public has a right to know the extent they are putting the public's lives, health, property, and environment at risk, and hid certain crucial information behind claims that the data are trade secrets. EPA rarely challenges such claims, allowing businesses to hide information that would be embarrassing for them but that might not actually contain trade secrets.

Alabama Power, Duke Energy, First Energy Generation, Georgia Power, Gulf Power, Mississippi Power Company, and Progress Energy Carolinas all made claims of "confidential business information." The information withheld includes the size and capacity of storage dumps and inspection histories. The public needs this information to plan for emergencies and hold the power companies and the inspecting agencies accountable.

It is perversely understandable why utilities would seek to hide information about their coal ash dump sites. From a company's perspective, beyond its impact on issues of accountability and a company's reputation, the disclosed information also contradicts the whole mythology around "clean coal," which is just one effort the coal industry is using to divert, distort, and derail climate change legislation. (The removal of mountain tops and burying of streams also belies the "clean coal" myth.)

The pdf version of the list of dump sites is here. A version in Microsoft Excel is here. The Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice – two organizations involved in the FOIA request, also released a report last May describing the numerous health and environmental hazards posed by coal ash dumps.

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