coal ash homeThe December 2008 impoundment failure at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston plant inundated a nearby community with toxic coal ash.Photo: United Mountain DefenseA special Facing South investigation.

When a billion gallons of coal ash broke loose from a holding pond at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston power plant near Harriman, Tenn. in December 2008, registered nurse Penny Dodson was living nearby with her 18-month-old grandson, Evyn.

Like most of her neighbors, Dodson never gave much thought to the impoundment until it collapsed, destroying three homes, damaging 42 others and inundating the nearby Clinch and Emory rivers with the sludgy coal waste.

The Dec. 22 spill blanketed Dodson’s property, but TVA assured residents it wasn’t toxic, so she and Evyn stayed put. But a week after the disaster, Evyn — who suffers from cerebral palsy — became very ill.

He refused to play or eat, his eyes turned red and watery, and he began coughing and wheezing. He eventually landed in the hospital, where tests showed his body had high levels of arsenic and lead, contaminants in the coal ash. The doctors blamed his troubles on airborne ash and advised them to move.

“I carry guilt because we stayed,” Dodson said in testimony to state lawmakers at a hearing held two months after the disaster. “Because I was told that we were going to be safe, and I believed them.”

Evyn DodsonEvyn Dodson, shown here at the 2009 state hearing on the TVA disaster, suffered serious health problems that doctors blamed on toxic substances in the coal ash that blanketed his family’s property. Still shot from WSMV video of the hearingSince that fateful incident, other energy disasters have grabbed headlines: the blast at a West Virginia coalmine that left 29 miners dead, and an explosion on BP’s offshore oil drilling rig that killed 11 workers and has released millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

Coal ash isn’t receiving as much attention nowadays. But a six-month investigation by Facing South finds that it poses a growing threat to public health and the environment — even as coal ash remains unregulated by the federal government due in large part to political pressure from energy companies.

But the days of coal ash escaping the scrutiny of federal regulators are numbered. Earlier this month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — after months of delay due to maneuvering among the EPA, White House Office of Management and Budget, and the politically powerful electric utility industry — took the unusual step of releasing two different proposals for how to regulate coal ash.

EPA is now asking the public to weigh in on the two options during a 90-day comment period that will begin once the proposed rules are published in the Federal Register. (For a pre-publication version of the rules, click here.) As EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said when the regulatory options were rolled out, “We look forward to the participation and the comments of the American people.”

What happens in the coming months will determine whether communities will be protected from the prospect of another coal ash disaster like the one that struck eastern Tennessee, as well as from less visible but no less dangerous coal ash disasters unfolding in communities nationwide.

Hazards in our midst

coal ash spillA coal ash spill from another Tennessee Valley Authority plant in Alabama the month after the disaster contaminated Widows Creek.Photo: Hurricane Creekkeeper John WathenWhen coal is burned to produce electricity, it leaves behind a variety of wastes — fly ash, bottom ash, boiler slag, and more — known collectively by regulators as coal combustion waste, or more commonly as coal ash.

U.S. coal plants generate more than 150 million tons of coal ash each year, according to a recent Environmental Protection Agency analysis. That makes it the second-largest industrial waste stream in the U.S. after mining waste.

Because coal ash is not regulated by the federal government, the EPA had never set out to count the number of impoundments for disposing of coal ash waste nationwide.

But after the Kingston disaster, the agency launched a search that turned up a total of 584 impoundments and similar disposal sites at more than 200 facilities, mostly power plants.

Of the more than 580 impoundments the EPA discovered, it rated the hazard potential of about a third of them. Of those, 49 units have been rated as high hazard — meaning a failure like the one at Kingston would likely kill people. Another 60 units are rated as significant hazards, meaning their failure could lead to widespread destruction like the Kingston disaster. Many of the communities at greatest risk from hazardous impoundments have higher-than-average poverty rates.

These ratings are significant, because failures of coal ash impoundments are not rare occurrences:

  • In July 2002, a sinkhole developed in an impoundment at the Georgia Power/Southern Company’s Plant Bowen in Bartow County, Ga., covering four acres and reaching 30 feet in depth. The sinkhole released 2.25 million gallons of a water and coal-ash mix to a tributary of the Euharlee Creek; that creek feeds the Etowah River, which provides drinking water to local communities and habitat to imperiled species.
  • In August 2005, an impoundment failed at PPL’s Martins Creek power plant in Pennsylvania’s Northampton County, sending more than 100 million gallons of contaminated water and coal ash into the Delaware River, which provides drinking water for downstream communities.
  • In January 2009 — less than a month after the catastrophic collapse at the Kingston plant — a pipe inside a coal ash impoundment at TVA’s Widows Creek plant in northeastern Alabama leaked, sending as much as 10,000 gallons of coal ash waste into nearby Widows Creek, a tributary of the Tennessee River. The intake for Scottsboro, Ala.’s water supply lies about 20 miles downstream of the spill site.

Despite the clear hazards, many of these coal ash dumps are unregulated not only by the federal government — they’re virtually unregulated at the state level as well. For example, most states don’t require groundwater monitoring and runoff collection at coal ash impoundments, and more than half don’t require liners or financial assurances to guarantee the owners can pay for cleanup of any contamination that might occur.

“It’s a situation that needs to be fixed,” said attorney Lisa Evans, a former EPA official who now works with the environmental law firm Earthjustice. “We’re talking about a potential loss of human life.”