Americans woke up to the threat of coal ash on Dec. 22, 2008, when the Tennessee Valley Authority’s coal-ash pond in Kingston, Tenn., burst, flooding the Emory and Clinch rivers with an estimated 1.1 billion gallons of toxic sludge.
Coal ash is a dangerous slurry of toxic metals such as arsenic, mercury, lead and cadmium that can cause cancer and other serious health problems. Coming to grips with an environmental catastrophe of this magnitude led the country to understand that this was not an isolated threat but a real and substantial danger that many communities face.
The Progress Energy plant in Skyland contains two of the nation's 49 high-hazard coal-ash dams. “High-hazard” means that if either one broke, there would almost certainly be loss of life as it inundated the French Broad and Interstate 26. But even while the dams remain intact, the ponds behind them already pose an environmental and health threat in the form of toxic metals leaching into the area's ground water.
Meanwhile, the plant itself is discharging alarmingly high levels of arsenic and other metals directly into the French Broad River. Samples we took from the plant’s discharge were tested and found to contain arsenic at more than 18 times the state’s human-health standard for both fish consumption and drinking water. And ground-water tests conducted by Progress Energy around the ponds as part of a voluntary program with the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources show they’ve exceeded state standards for a variety of pollutants 116 times in recent years. Those violations ranged from twice to 189 times the legal limit.
This is not an idle threat: These ponds sit within three football fields of the French Broad River and within a half-mile of residential drinking-water wells. But because it’s not currently required, no tests have been conducted to see how quickly this ground-water contamination may be moving toward either drinking-water wells or the French Broad.
Unfortunately, this situation is not unique. Nationwide, the Environmental Protection Agency, Earthjustice and the Environmental Integrity Project have identified more than 100 coal-ash ponds that are damaging the surrounding environment. Recognizing the seriousness of this issue, the EPA has recently proposed regulating coal ash as a hazardous material in order to protect the public. This would mean establishing federal and state oversight to ensure that these ponds are lined, ground water is monitored and contamination cleaned up.
But the agency has also proposed another alternative: treating coal ash the same as household waste, with no oversight to ensure that toxic ash doesn’t wind up in your tap water. Under that proposal, the only mechanism for cleaning up coal-ash pollution would be citizen enforcement. What kind of regulation institutes zero oversight and places 100 percent of the enforcement burden on the general public?
Meanwhile, neither proposal pays much attention to the fact that toxic coal ash is currently reused as a soil amendment on farmers’ fields, to improve traction on slick roads, and as fill for construction projects, sometimes even filling in streams.
According to figures supplied by Progress Energy, an expansion project now under way at the Asheville Airport used about 650,000 cubic yards of coal ash to fill in a stream valley just above a mobile-home park whose residents rely on drinking-water wells. During construction, this ash washed off the site and was deposited in the stream, mere feet from this unsuspecting community’s front doors.
Because of the environmental threat posed by coal ash, it’s critical that the EPA get this right. Not surprisingly, however, the agency is under enormous pressure from the utility industry to continue letting the fox guard the henhouse. Now is the time for concerned citizens to tell the EPA that they want coal ash regulated as hazardous waste — before it washes into more yards, streams or drinking-water supplies.
Nearly 300 people turned out for a Sept. 14 public hearing in Charlotte, and a majority of them said they want their communities protected from coal ash. I urge you to join them by submitting your comments to the EPA no later than Friday, Nov. 19, or by attending the Oct. 27 public hearing in Knoxville. (see box: “Sounding Off”) Tell them to regulate coal ash as a hazardous waste — to protect your river and your drinking-water supply.
— French Broad Riverkeeper Hartwell Carson works for the Western North Carolina Alliance, a grass-roots group promoting livable communities and environmental protection. He can be reached at 828-258-8737 or at Riverkeeper@wnca.org.