The late December dam break sent millions of tons of coal ash sludge roaring into homes still decorated for Christmas. Photos by United Mountain Defense in collection of Lane Bolden.
A 2007 report by the EPA on the dangers of living near coal ash ponds was kept secret until March 2009 when the Obama administration ordered it released. Some of the data goes back to the mid 1990s. Some of the coal ash ponds in the report may no longer be active. In the release, Kentucky has six sites on the listed, one in McCracken County Kentucky.com The Knoxville News Sentinel published a list of ponds in January 2009 (see list below) after an earthen dam broke at the Kingston Fossil Plant about 40 miles west of Knoxville. The breach sent 5.4 million tons of coal ash spilling down, inundating 300 acres of homes, roads, rivers and creeks. When it was done, the spill was large enough to cover 3000 acres with a foot of coal ash. Experts called it the largest environmental disaster of its kind – three times worse than the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska. Clean up costs to date are 525 and 850 million dollars, not including long term clean up costs. Lawsuits filed by residents and environmentalist groups continue to wind their way through the courts.
As recently as two years ago, the coal industry was convincing cities and economic development groups that coal ash ponds are not dangerous. The Roanoke Virginia News covered a public meeting in Narrows, Virginia where residents were told that even if coal ash leached into the river, the effects would be minimal.
Tim Thornton reported.
” NARROWS -- Eight police officers stood across the back of the Narrows High School auditorium where 90 people gathered to hear why it's a good idea to put 254,000 cubic yards of coal ash beside the New River. A slide projected on a wall of the auditorium declared, "Glen Lyn Coal Ash Not a Waste Product ... A Product WASTED!"
It looked and sounded like high drama, but the plan already has all the government approval it needs to proceed. The meeting, organized by Appalachian Power Co., was intended to calm people uneasy about putting the ash in the flood plain of an American Heritage River.
The experts said the chance of anything getting into the river from the site is small. Even if it did, they said, the effects would be minimal -- probably undetectable.
"Essentially, it is melted dirt," Thomas Schmaltz, environmental director for Headwaters Incorporated, said of the ash. Headwaters, which will run the Giles project, has done similar projects in 42 states, he said, some of them in flood plains. "It's just something you engineer around." Roanoke News November 2007
To sweeten the pot, the money generated by the sale of land for the coal ash pond would be used for special education programs.
In March 2009, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson announced that her agency would be surveying 300 sites in the first steps to preventing another spill. New York Times, March 8, 2009 “Environmental disasters like the one last December in Kingston should never happen anywhere in this country,” said EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson. “That is why we are announcing several actions to help us properly protect the families who live near these facilities and the places where they live, work, play and learn.” EPA Press Release In his May 7, 2009 Iowa Independent.com story, writer Jason Hancock laid out why coal ash is dangerous in a story headlined “EPA Failed to Reveal Health Risks”
“The ash contains high levels of arsenic, lead, mercury and boron, each of which has been known to cause cancer, neurological and development problems, and other illnesses. Yet for three decades, rules governing coal ash have been left up to the states, creating a patchwork of differing regulations with questionable effectiveness…
Coal ash also poses a serious danger to aquatic wildlife and ecosystems, the report said. One contaminant - boron - can be expected to leach into the environment at levels 2,000 times the threshold generally considered safe for aquatic life.”
Bill Theobold, Washington bureau reporter for The Tennessean wrote for their May 8th edition “The EPA found that 1 in 50 residents near these sites could get cancer from exposure to arsenic in drinking water. The standard acceptable cancer risk is 1 in 100,000. The residents also would be at higher risk for exposure to lead, which can damage the central nervous system.” West Virginia Gazette May 7, 2009 reported that the EPA risk study did not examine the specific risks of any of those facilities, instead examining a broader question of how drinking water contaminated by a coal-ash dump could affect human health.
Among the findings:
· The problem may be twice as big as the data indicate: The number of unlined and clay-lined ash ponds and landfills currently in operation in the United States is likely to be more than double the number of units represented in the EPA survey data. Industry has reported at lest 427 waste ponds, more than 40 percent more than EPA had expected.
- Health threats from coal ash could linger for 100 years: EPA warns that peak pollution from ash ponds can occur long after the waste is placed and is likely to result in peak exposures 78 to 105 years after the ponds first begin operation.
- Higher cancer risks for up to 1 in 50 nearby residents: The EPA estimates that up to 1 in 50 nearby residents could get cancer from exposure to arsenic leaking into drinking water wells from unlined waste ponds that mix ash and coal refuse.
- Higher noncancer risks from lead and other sources: EPA projects that unlined ash ponds can increase the risk of other noncancer health effects, such as damage to the liver and kidneys, or in the case of lead, to the central nervous system.
- What environmentalists described as "eye-popping" risks to aquatic ecosystems -- EPA data predicted boron concentrations up to 2,000 times the safe level, and selenium levels 10 times higher than considered safe to aquatic life.
Kentucky lawmakers and lobbyists will have a difficult time wishing the Obama Administration’s EPA away. There is little will in any branch of state government to address the issues raised by the stories surveyed above.
Because of the nation's dependence on coal for electricity, coal and the coal industry won' t be going away in the foreseeable future. It remains to be seen if King Coal will be able to explain away the dangers of coal ash stored in open unlined ponds or if it the industry will appeal to the federal government for money to clean up the sites. We're betting they will do both.
Coal Ash Ponds 2005 List from EPA Published in January 2009- source Knoxville News Sentinel – only six Kentucky sites are on most recent report
Cincinnati Gas & Electric Co. - Boone County - 172,900 tons
East Kentucky Power Cooperative Inc. - Clark County - 60,000 tons
East Kentucky Power Cooperative Inc. - Mason County - 4,300 tons
Kentucky Utilities Co. - Mercer County - 140,500 tons
Kentucky Utilities Co. - Carroll County - 634,700 tons
Kentucky Utilities Co. - Muhlenberg County - 30,600 tons
Kentucky Utilities Co. - Woodford County - 18,900 tons
Louisville Gas & Electric Co. - Jefferson County - 37,100 tons
Louisville Gas & Electric Co. - Jefferson County - 64,700 tons
Louisville Gas & Electric Co. - Trimble County - 150,900 tons
Tennessee Valley Authority - Muhlenberg County - 125,700 tons
Tennessee Valley Authority - McCracken County - 61,100 tons
Western Kentucky Energy Corp. - Henderson County - 12,300 tons
Western Kentucky Energy Corp. - Webster County - 21,800 tons
Kentucky Power Co. - Lawrence County - 298,300 tons