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Patrick McCarthy headshot

Why the EPA's Decision on Coal Ash Matters

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has recognized that, all too often, the communities most affected by coal ash pollution are poorer and lack the resources to mitigate the environmental harm or pursue legal action.
Neuse River coal ash spill

An aerial shot of North Carolina's Neuse River after a coal ash spill in 2016. 

In case you missed it, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently rejected requests from energy facilities to dump coal ash, a byproduct of coal-fired power plants, into unlined surface impoundments. 

The Jan. 25 announcement is one of the strongest actions the agency has taken on coal ash to date, and it represents a renewed focus on preserving communities and clean water supplies. "We remain committed to working with our state partners to protect everyone, especially those in communities overburdened by pollution, from coal ash contamination now and into the future," stated EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan.

The end of an ill-advised era

The EPA first declared its intention to curb unsafe and unsustainable coal ash disposal back in 2010. In the years since, some advocates have criticized the agency for dragging its feet on decisive action to curb coal ash dumping in unlined ponds. It took five more years for the agency to confirm the rules it suggested in 2010, and since then, stakeholders have eroded the 2015 ruleset and continue to fight for more exemptions.

The last 15 years are a testament to the harm created by dumping coal ash into unlined ponds. In 2008, a containment pond spill at the Kingston Energy Plant in Tennessee sent more than a billion gallons of coal ash into the Emory River. In the decades since, dozens of workers who cleaned up the spill have died from cancer or blood conditions caused by exposure to toxic chemicals — and those who survived continue to reel from the effects of their exposure. Other major pollution events include Duke Energy's months of illegal coal ash dumping into the Cape Fear River in North Carolina back in 2013 and 2014.

The big spills are so infamous, and receive so much news coverage, that it's easy to think of them as outliers or freak occurrences. Yet the Environmental Integrity Project determined that "91 percent of U.S. coal-fired power plants with monitoring data are contaminating groundwater with unsafe levels of toxic pollutants."

Of the 265 power plants with monitoring data, 242 plants had polluted nearby groundwater with unsafe levels of coal ash chemicals, according to a 2019 report from the environmental watchdog. Coal ash ponds can leak metals even without a breach in the pond lining, meaning that even coal ash ponds in perfect working order pose grave threats to local communities.

A future without coal ash containment ponds

The EPA has recognized that, all too often, the communities most affected by coal ash pond pollution are poorer and lack the resources to mitigate the environmental harm or pursue legal action.

"Today's action delivers protections for underserved communities already overburdened by pollution, and reflects the Biden-Harris administration's commitment to advancing environmental justice in impacted communities," the agency stated in its announcement.

Environmental NGOs and associations sounded off their approval of the EPA's decision, though some urged the agency to take more decisive and substantial action.

While expressing support for the announcement, Jonathan Levenshus, director of federal energy campaigns at the Sierra Club, added: "Threats from coal ash remain across the country, and we urge EPA to take further action to protect our communities from this nasty byproduct of the fossil fuel industry."

Image credit: Waterkeeper Alliance/Flickr

Patrick McCarthy headshot

Patrick is a freelance journalist who writes what the robots can't. Based in Syracuse, New York, Patrick seeks to uplift, inform, and inspire readers with stories centered on environmental activism, social justice, and arts and music. He enjoys collecting books and records, writing prose and poetry, and playing guitar.

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