The "Earth Focus" episode "America's Dirty Secret: Coal Ash" offers a startling look at the consequences of our nation's addiction to the dirtiest of all fossil fuels, and the impact of coal's waste products on two hard-hit areas in the eastern United States. But how widespread are the effects of unregulated coal ash dumping? What can we do to find out whether we're also being affected by this toxic legacy of our energy consumption, and how can we urge agencies to do a better job of protecting us?
We asked "Earth Focus" producer Raisa Scriabine some questions about the broader effects of America's dirty secret.
Chris Clarke: How widespread is the coal ash problem in the United States? About how many ash ponds or landfills do we have in the US?
Raisa Scriabine: According to Sierra Club and EPA sources, there are some 1,070 coal ash ponds in the United States and the majority of them -- experts say as many as 60 percent or more -- lack liners to prevent chemicals from leaching into the soil and surrounding water table. Only a composite liner is sufficient to prevent the escape of dangerous levels of contaminants, and the EPA has estimated that the use of composite liners at coal ash ponds is very low.
CC: Are there other places in the country where the problem is as severe as you describe in Georgia and northeastern Pennsylvania?
RS: Many highly hazardous coal ash ponds are located in North Carolina, Indiana, West Virginia, Ohio and on the border between Kentucky and Indiana. However, a number of other states in the mid-west and east coast operate coal ash waste ponds. Areas of the country where problems of contaminated water and blowing toxic coal ash dust are similar to those in Pennsylvania and Georgia are the industrial mid West (Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa and Missouri). There are more than 200 sites called "damage cases," including Superfund sites and other locations, where coal ash and scrubber sludge has contaminated groundwater or surface water to levels too toxic for consumption by humans or livestock.
CC: There are an increasing number of stories about individual coal ash spills over the last few years, from the disastrous ash pond flood in Tennessee in 2008 to February's spill into the Dan River in Virginia. When you spoke with the Georgia and Pennsylvania residents you featured, did you get the feeling that they felt they were part of an issue that was larger than their own neighborhood? Had they been in touch with other communities suffering similar problems?
RS: While the people we spoke with in communities in Georgia and Pennsylvania were generally focused on their own neighborhoods and communities and on their own often severe and overwhelming health issues, they were aware that there were other communities that also had concerns.
CC: You point out that federal agencies like the EPA have historically refused to regulate coal ash disposal, though it looks like the EPA may be coming around on that. If regulation has been left up to the states, are there any states that are doing a better job of protecting their residents from coal ash pollution? Is there a model we want the EPA to emulate?
RS: Very few of the states are doing an adequate job of protecting their residents from coal ash pollution. Pennsylvania adopted a revised regulation for the beneficial use of coal ash in coal mines and the disposal of coal ash in ash ponds in 2010, called Chapter 290, that does have a number of improved standards to separate coal ash from water tables in mines, characterize ash and monitor it better and require corrective action quicker in response to problems. This regulation also requires that all new ash ponds in Pennsylvania be lined and monitored. But there are a large number of older, "legacy sites" (closed sites that operate under little or no standards) in Pennsylvania and other states that remain unregulated. Many people may not even know that they live near one of these older legacy sites.
CC: That's a great intro to the next question. Most of us turn on a tap and don't think much about where the water comes from. But seeing this segment, viewers may wonder whether there's a coal ash dump upstream from their faucet. Regardless of whether our water comes from a backyard well or an aqueduct hundreds of miles long, how can we find out whether fly ash is polluting the water we drink?
RS: Viewers can go to web sites of environmental organizations that are trying to force the EPA to regulate coal ash, like those for Earthjustice, Environmental Integrity Project, Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE), Waterkeepers, Clean Water Action, Natural Resources Defense Council, and Sierra Club. These organizations have compiled a lot of information that tells viewers where the ash dumps (ponds and landfills) are in the United States.
CC: You mention that the EPA is working on revised coal ash disposal standards for discussion later in 2014. Do you have a prediction as to whether those proposed rules will be tough enough? If not, what can viewers do to push for stronger protections of public health and the environment from coal ash?
RS: We have no predictions ourselves but the Coal Ash Association leadership has issued a statement that they expect that EPA will continue to keep coal ash classified as a non hazardous waste, as the Association would prefer. Environmental advocates however urge the public to call their members of Congress and the White House to demand action and accountability for common sense protection from coal ash -- including rules that require permits for ash placement sites and adequate monitoring and prompt cleanup of any pollution caused by coal ash.