Coal-ash waste poses risk across the nation
Hundreds of landfills and slurry ponds – like the one that failed in Tennessee – are dotted across the US, endangering communities and water supplies.
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The problem is perhaps most acute among nearly 100 coal-ash storage lagoons in two dozen states across the country. Many of these ponds are far larger and far more toxic than the one that burst at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston power plant at Harriman, Tenn., on Dec. 22.Skip to next paragraph
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That assertion is based on data released Jan. 7 by the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP), a Washington-based watchdog group. Their analysis of EPA data showed volumes of heavy metals that were larger than those at Kingston being deposited at other power-plant waste sites.
Aresnic, lead pose threat to well water
Arsenic levels in waterways near the Kingston spill were far above safe drinking water standards, according to EPA samples taken after the accident. Such toxins can be removed at water treatment facilities, but pose a threat to drinking water wells,
Some power-plant surface impoundments are 1,500 acres in area and contain perhaps 55 million cubic yards of material. That’s several times the size of the Kingston facility.
Environmentalists say Tennessee a warning sign
“Our analysis confirms that this problem is truly national in scope and that Tennessee may end up only being a warning sign of much more trouble to come,” EIP director Eric Schaeffer said in a statement. He also warned of what he called “inadequate oversight and monitoring of land-based disposal and other ‘storage’ of these toxic wastes.”
Just ask Jan Nona, a retired secretary who lives in the little town of Michigan City, Ind., two miles from a coal-ash landfill that has grown to be several city blocks long, several blocks wide, and a few stories tall. Only part of the landfill is lined, so toxins like boron have leached into the city ground water.
“I used to have a well with sweet water – until the boron level got too high,” she says. “Me and my neighbors have had to give up our wells now that they have boron, manganese, molybdenum, and other things in them. We’ve got test results that boggle the mind.”
Sturdiness of impoundment dams an issue
Others are more concerned about a catastrophic release. In the past eight years, two other big dam breaks have occurred in coal-ash impoundments, one in Georgia and one more recently in Pennsylvania on the Delaware River. Both spills killed river life for miles and cost tens of millions of dollars to clean up.
Just how sturdy are the hundreds of dams holding back hundreds of millions of cubic yards of coal-ash slurry? Many of these dams are made of compacted coal ash, as was the case at the TVA facility, rather than of compacted earth, which is more stable.