Thursday, September 09, 2010

Citizens, public interest groups push for safeguards against coal ash pollution

Citizens, public interest groups push for safeguards against coal ash pollution

If the phrase “coal ash” brings to mind no specific image for you, think back to December 2008. That’s when the most massive coal ash spill in U.S. history inundated homes, buried farmland and fouled rivers near a power plant outside of Knoxville, Tennessee. The photos and video of that disaster made plain for all to see the inadequacy of the safeguards that were supposed to protect people and wildlife from coal ash pollution. (Click here to see pictures.)

While the Tennessee spill was the biggest to date, it was not an isolated incident—significant failures of coal ash impoundments have also occurred in Georgia, Kentucky and Pennsylvania in recent years. And it represents only the most obvious way hazardous materials from coal ash contaminate the environment.

In less dramatic fashion, pollutants from coal ash stored at dump sites around the country contaminate the environment on a daily basis as they are carried away to neighboring land by the wind, migrate into groundwater or flow off directly into lakes and streams. Most significant among these are chemicals that can sicken or kill people when they occur in drinking water--arsenic, selenium, lead, mercury, cadmium, etc.

How big a problem is this? Very big. The waste produced by burning coal—primarily at power plants—is second only to household garbage as a component of the American waste stream—131 million tons per year.

Illinois is currently the eighth largest generator of coal ash, but our state enjoys the dubious distinction of having more sites than any other, twelve, where contamination from coal ash has been documented in nearby water. I should add that these twelve sites have been identified through a hit-or-miss process rather than a coordinated effort, so there are likely more to be found. Our state is also home to two ash ponds ranked as “high hazard potential” facilities using criteria developed for the National Dam Safety Program, which means there is potential for dams to fail and unleash coal ash on downstream communities.

According to Traci Barkley, watershed resources scientist with the Champaign-based conservation group, Prairie Rivers Network, the current system of regulating coal ash on a state-by-state basis has enabled polluters to avoid the cost of handling this material as the hazardous waste that it is. She points out there is no statewide requirement to track or monitor where it is generated or where it is disposed of. Further, she adds, if coal ash is disposed of onsite at a power plant or in a coal mine or a quarry, no permit is required and a limited review of threats to water is conducted.

Change is in the offing, though.

After years of effort from citizens and public interest groups to document and publicize the threats posed by coal ash pollution, the U.S. EPA is poised to adopt one of two new policy options. One of these, which is backed by the coal and electric utility lobbies, would essentially allow for a continuation of the current system. The other, which has been promoted in Illinois by a coalition including Prairie Rivers Network, the Sierra Club and Earthjustice, would effectively regulate coal ash as hazardous waste, with the associated safeguards for storage, handling, transport and disposal.

There are two ways to let U.S. EPA know where you stand on this question. One is to join citizens from all over the Midwest to speak out at a public hearing that will be conducted on Thursday, September 16, at the Hilton Chicago, 720 South Michigan Avenue. If you are in the Champaign-Urbana area you can arrange for carpooling to the hearing by contacting Traci Barkley ( or 344-2371). You can guarantee yourself time to speak there by pre-registering at The other is to submit written comments to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson through Sierra Club at