Power industry lobbyist Jim Roewer: “Wasn’t a problem.”

Leslie Stahl: “Well, it was a problem, but we just didn’t know it.”

This excerpt from a recent 60 Minutes story on toxic coal waste sums up the current trouble with the millions of tons of toxic ash left over each year from burning coal for energy. 

While scientists and experts know, and have known for years that coal ash is full of harmful pollution that can cause cancer and other serious illnesses, the issue flew largely under the radar until the massive TVA disaster. Even now nobody, including the EPA, has a full picture of how much of this toxic waste is out there, where it is, or if it is staying put. The coal industry has dumped millions of tons of its toxic leftovers at thousands of sites across the country with no federal oversight, and utterly inadequate state policies. 

The result? Toxic ash dump sites lacking even basic safety protections, drinking water sources poisoned and people unknowingly at risk.

A new investigative report reveals more than three dozen new sites in 21 states where toxic coal waste has made water supplies unsafe. These sites are the latest in a steadily growing number of waters known to be contaminated by poor management of coal ash. So far more than 130 cases of coal ash contamination have been found in 34 states, and even EPA admits this could be just the tip of the iceberg. 

Many state agencies (like those in Alabama, Arizona, Indiana, Ohio, Mississippi, Missouri, New Mexico and Tennessee to name a few) require no monitoring of waters near toxic coal ash sites. Other states, like West Virginia, do such a poor job of monitoring as to be useless. About 70 percent of the toxic coal ash generated nationwide is dumped in states that don’t require monitoring to see if toxic contamination is leaking from coal ash sites.  

The report shows that states responsible for only four of the coal ash sites have required an investigation to determine the scale of the pollution. Not one state has required the toxic pollution to be stopped, let alone cleaned up.  There is a clear need for the EPA to step in where the states have failed to protect our communities. 

Lisa Jackson and the EPA have recognized this and the agency is currently considering whether and how to regulate toxic coal ash. Monday the EPA will begin a series of hearings across the country to gather public comment on the new protections. The first hearing will be in Arlington, Virginia, followed by hearings in Colorado, Texas, North Carolina, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Kentucky over the next month. Whether you attend a hearing in person or submit comments online I urge you to send a strong message to EPA that federally enforceable protections are absolutely necessary in the face of the growing risk from coal’s toxic waste.