Toxic coal ash is, by far, the largest byproduct of our dependency on fossil fuels. More than 400 coal-fired power plants in the United States produce the harmful residue at the rate of 110 million tons per year—impossible to sweep under the rug.
Nearly every state in the country has a coal-ash dump, and many of these sites, from the eastern seaboard all the way out to Nevada, are contaminating the surrounding environment with poisons, including arsenic, mercury, and lead. Heavy metals leach out of poorly contained waste piles into streams and groundwater, while wind can blow toxic dust toward playgrounds and schools, often in low-income communities. In some cases, containment structures have catastrophically failed, polluting drinking water and swamping communities with tainted sludge.
As part of the Trump administration's broad attack on environmental regulations, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt last week took the first step toward rescinding or amending a 2015 rule aimed at preventing communities from worst-case coal disasters. The EPA announcement came in response to industry petitions seeking deadline delays and claiming the rule is too costly.
The rule was adopted after public interest groups and a Native American tribe, the Moapa Band of Paiutes, sued the government over impacts from coal ash. The threat was illustrated in 2008, when a dike failure in in Tennessee released 1.1 billion gallons of ash slurry, covering 300 acres of land and polluting several streams with a toxic sludge.
According to the non-profit Earthjustice, there have been 208 documented instances of contamination at the more than 1,400 coal ash sites across the country. There are 331 dams rated as high-risk identified on this interactive Earthjustice map.
The Trump administration has also recently also moved to rescind the wetlands-delineating Waters of the U.S. rule and ended a mining health study. National Geographic maintains a running list of the administration's attempted changes to environmental policies and rules.
The problem of coal-ash disposal is widespread and not getting better, says Barbara Gottfried, environment and health program director with Physicians for Social Responsibility.
The advocacy group warns that coal ash is associated with an acute risk of cancer and neurological ill-effects, as well heart damage, lung disease, kidney disease, reproductive problems, gastrointestinal illness, birth defects, and impaired bone growth in children.
Coal ash is the second-largest industrial waste stream in the country, after mining waste, and many poorer communities are sitting ducks, she says.
"You find coal ash wherever there are coal-fired power plants. Utilities usually look to locate them on land that's relatively inexpensive. That's usually near low-income neighborhoods and in rural areas," Gottfried says.
Toxins in coal ash, including heavy metals, are bio-accumulative, building up from the base of the food chain in nature to higher concentrations in fish, birds, and mammals, as Gottfried explains. There, it can disproportionately affect lower-income areas including indigenous and African-American communities.
"The toxic substances are basic elements. They never go away, they never break down into something that's not harmful, so any solution has to be forever," she says. "There are instances of all the best available technologies for containment failing at one point or another."
Earthjustice attorney Lisa Evans says that, if "the EPA guts the coal ash rule beyond recognition and leaves communities unprotected, there are members of Congress who will step forward and cry foul."
The coal ash dump sites are ticking pollution time bombs, and communities should develop grassroots tools to protect themselves, while partnering with larger organizations focused on the issue.
"It's important for communities to know how their local coal plants handle their toxic waste. Facility inspections are now available online, and next year groundwater monitoring data will be available," Evans says. The Earthjustice coal ash website is a clearinghouse for this information.
Evans says communities and watchdogs should look frequently at compliance documents and seek legal assistance if they notice violations or dangerous conditions, adding that communities cannot rely on the EPA to protect them in the current political environment.
"The biggest danger comes from coal-ash ponds, where the ash is drenched in water and sand slurried out to massive, unlined impoundments that leak toxic chemicals and can cause catastrophic spills," she says.