Coal ash is an incredibly toxic byproduct of coal-derived energy that activists have pushed for years for regulators to address and are now finally having success. Water contamination from coal ash ponds (the pits where the sludge is stored) is widespread and we’re learning more about the extent of the pollution constantly. In fact, a recent analysis by the Environmental Integrity Project revealed that toxic coal ash pollutants are leaking into groundwater surrounding 100 percent of Texas’s power plants for which data are available, with unsafe levels of arsenic, cobalt, lithium, and other pollutants seeping from the ash dumps.
As Earth Justice (an analyst of the EIP data) recently reported, industry groundwater monitoring data made publicly available for the first time in 2018 thanks to a new requirement in federal coal ash regulations reveal multiple contaminants leaching from 16 of 16 coal-fired power plants in Texas to which the new rules apply. The analysis concluded that concludes that both the fossil fuel industry and Texas regulators have consistently failed to protect Texas groundwater. Environmental Integrity Project attorney Abel Russ, an author of the report, said that “We found contamination everywhere we looked, poisoning groundwater aquifers and recreational fishing spots across the state, this confirms that dumping large volumes of toxic waste in poorly-lined pits is a terrible idea. The problem is, unfortunately, going to get even worse unless Texas power plants change the way they dispose of coal ash.”
U.S. coal plants produce around 100 million tons of ash every year from hundreds of sites across the country. For much of the last century, many utilities dumped this waste into unlined landfills and waste ponds, even though the lack of a barrier between the coal ash and groundwater left them vulnerable to leaks and contamination of underground water supplies. Only in recent years has the true scope of coal ash’s threat come into public view.
Why This Matters: After the disastrous TVA Kingston Fossil Plant spill poured 1.1 billion gallons of coal ash flurry across Eastern Tennessee, the Obama administration worked to strengthen rules regarding how the toxic substance should be stored and handled. The Trump administration, on the other hand, has worked to weaken and delay implementation of those rules which puts millions of Americans in jeopardy. Just this week it was revealed that coal ash has was dumped into a South Carolina river and earlier in February it was revealed that the Tennessee Valley Authority would be passing along the costs of the fallout of the Kingston spill onto its customers. Not only do we need more stringent regulations but this also underscores the need to transition to renewable energy which doesn’t produce toxic waste as a byproduct that needs to be stored somewhere.