Government Doesn’t Reveal Locations of Hazardous Coal Ash Sites

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Photo By Tomsaint11/ Courtesy Flickr
One of many coal plants that produce the hazardous by product coal ash.

The problem with hazardous waste storage in the United States may be worse than anyone thought. Senator Barbara Boxer, the chairwoman of the Environmental and Public Works Committee, is trying to build a system to regulate the sites of hazardous coal ash that are sprinkled across the country. The problem is, she can’t say where they are. The Department of Homeland Security and the Army Corps of Engineers won’t let her release the locations of these toxic sites. 

Coal ash is a toxic pollutant that can contain substances like mercury, arsenic, lead, beryllium and cadmium. It is a byproduct of coal-fired power plants and is often stored in holding ponds near the plants. A study published in Scientific American revealed a higher concentration of radioactivity in coal ash than in waste from nuclear power plants. So why aren’t coal ash storage ponds treated like other hazardous waste sites? 

Approximately 300 unregulated coal ash piles are at risk, while 44 of these sites are considered a high hazard by the Environmental Protection Agency. But the public is not being informed of the location of these hazardous sites because it could constitute a potential threat to national security. 

A letter released by the Army Corps states that “uncontrolled or unrestricted release (of the information) may pose a security risk to projects or communities by increasing its attractiveness as a potential target.” 

Unfortunately, that means that many people or their homes may be at risk from the dangers of a spill and not even know it. In the last year there have been at least three spills of toxic coal ash. The largest of these disasters was on December 22, 2008 at the Kingston Fossil Plant in Tennessee. When the dike at a holding pond broke, 5 million cubic yards of coal ash slurry were released, covering over 300 acres and destroying and damaging 40 homes. The spill was 100 times worse than the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 which is still considered one of the most devastating human-induced environmental disasters. 

Yet while the Department of Homeland Security and the Army Corps remain worried about “enemies of the U.S.” provoking a spill, these coal ash piles could be disrupted by storms, earthquakes or the simple failure of a mechanical structure such as a dike. For now, the muzzle order remains in effect, although Boxer promises she will continue to push for the public release of the information.

More about coal

• Mixing fly-ash, a coal-burning byproduct, into concrete is one way to turn coal into something good. Use it for sidewalks, driveways and conrete floors.

• Clean energy protestors demonstrated in front of the coal-burning Capital Power Plant in January. The plant supplies heat to congressional offices.

• Read about how coal-fired power plants in Kansas were rejected by Governor Kathleen Sebelius.