Coal Ash Ponds Put our Waterways at Risk

Media Contacts
Kara Cook-Schultz

U.S. PIRG Education Fund

Toxic ponds filled with billions of gallons of waste from coal plants across the United States pose a threat to hundreds of rivers and lakes, and millions of Americans who live near them. As the public comment period closes on the Trump administration’s proposal to weaken current rules protecting waterways, Accidents Waiting to Happen: Coal Ash Ponds Put Our Waterways at Risk, a new report from Environment America Research & Policy Center, U.S. PIRG Education Fund and Frontier Group,  documents the toxic pollution threats from these poorly-regulated waste pits. 

“Putting billions of gallons of toxic coal ash next to our rivers and drinking water — that’s just an accident waiting to happen,” said John Rumpler, senior director of Environment America’s clean water program and co-author of the report. “We should be phasing out these toxic pits. The last thing we should be doing is weakening the few standards we already have in place to limit their pollution of our waters.”

The new report pinpoints the danger of coal ash ponds spilling into nearby waterways. In the United States, at least 14 coal plants with on-site ash ponds are within Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) 100-year flood zones. These plants generate 8.4 million tons of toxic coal ash each year and also house at least 36 coal ash ponds, including eight that a 2014 EPA assessment found in poor condition.

Leaks and spills are inevitable, especially in flood zones, where rainstorms can cause coal ash to overflow into clean waterways. Accidents Waiting to Happen details coal plants in flood zones that pose the greatest risks with respect to coal ash — especially along the Ohio River, which is not only the 10th-longest river in the country, it also flows into the Mississippi River. 

“The existing EPA policies on coal ash don’t even classify it as ‘hazardous waste.’ Now, the EPA is trying to weaken coal ash policies even more,” said Rumpler. “That’s just inviting disaster for our rivers.”

“Coal ash exposes people to dangerous toxins, including arsenic, mercury, and lead.  These contaminants can cause circulatory, respiratory, and digestive problems,” added Kara Cook-Schultz, toxics program director for U.S.PIRG.  “After man-made and natural disasters from the Flint Water Crisis to Hurricane Harvey, you’d think by now we’d do everything in our power to ensure Americans have access to clean drinking water that won’t make them sick.”

Gideon Weissman, the Frontier Group policy analyst who co-authored the report, added, “The great irony here is that in 2018 we’re using a heavily-polluting power source from the 19th century, when we could be relying on modern, totally clean energy sources. Rather than making things easier for polluters who are using antiquated methods, the EPA ought to hold the companies that create coal ash ponds accountable for the health of the land and people around them.”

Today’s Accidents Waiting to Happen report is the first in a series of reports that Environment America Research & Policy Center, U.S. PIRG Education Fund and Frontier Group plan to publish to highlight facilities that threaten America’s waterways and sources of drinking water.