The Skywriter

Coal ash everywhere! (with map)


Coal ash everywhere! (with map)

If you were shocked by the Tennessee coal ash disaster from last December, brace yourself: that may be just be the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

Today the Center for Public Integrity released Coal Ash: The Hidden Story: a new investigation on this growing environmental disaster and a decades-long history of government inaction. Along with the report, CPI has created an interactive map, searchable by zip code, that shows the location of 446 landfills and disposal ponds, and the quantity of coal ash produced nearby, allowing you to identify coal ash sites near your home. The map is truly shocking: a sea of little blue, red and yellow pins blanketing much of the country (particularly the eastern half), with each pin representing a plant and its coal ash disposal method. Here's a screen shot I took of the map (click to see the map itself):

Coal ash map

The map is even more shocking when you keep in mind that those 446 landfills and disposal ponds are full of this stuff:

Coal ash is the collective term for the various solid remnants left over from burning the black rock to produce electricity at more than 500 power plants nationwide. The ash amounts to dirty stuff, replete with toxic constituents — arsenic, chromium, lead, mercury, and many others — that can wreak havoc on the environment and human health. Exposure to its toxins can lead to cancer, birth defects, gastro-intestinal illnesses, and reproductive problems.

And while the Tennessee disaster was a dramatic reminder of the dangers of coal ash disposal sites (and coal power plants in general), these sites also pose a less dramatic, but more insidious and widespread threat:

But what happened in the Volunteer State represents just a small slice of the potential threat from coal ash. In many states — at ponds, landfills, and pits where coal ash gets dumped — a slow seepage of the ash’s metals has poisoned water supplies, damaged ecosystems, and jeopardized citizens’ health. In July 2007, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency identified 63 “proven or potential damage cases” in 23 states where coal ash has tarnished groundwater and harmed ecology. Additional cases of contamination have since surfaced in states as far-flung as Maryland, New Mexico, Indiana, and Virginia. And in some locations, like Colstrip, the contamination has resulted in multimillion-dollar payouts to residents enduring the devastation.

If there's any silver lining at all to what happened in Tennessee (and you have to look really, really hard to find one), it's that there's now a bright spotlight on coal ash disposal sites--and the government's failure to regulate them. Congress is already moving: Rep. Nick Rahall held a hearing recently on a bill would establish federal standards for the design, engineering, and performance of coal ash disposal sites. Here at 1Sky, we've been keeping the issue alive through an online action demanding that Congress pass a moratorium on new coal power plants. As for the CPI report, be sure to read the whole thing. If you haven't been following this issue closely--or even if you have--it's a real eye-opener.

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