The Freedom of Information Act request was submitted by the Sierra Club, Earthjustice, the Environmental Integrity Project, and Natural Resources Defense Council after the EPA last week refused to disclose which of the hundreds of coal ash sites across the country pose a high hazard threat to nearby communities.
The EPA was instructed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security not to release information about the location of these 44 impoundment dams containing coal ash, a byproduct of using coal to generate electricity.
"The industry has told us for decades that coal ash is perfectly safe - now we're told that some of their ash dumps are so dangerous, the federal government is afraid to tell us where they are. We need to move beyond this 'see no evil' approach, and regulate these unsafe practices," said Eric Schaeffer, director of the Environmental Integrity Project.
Unspecified national security concerns were cited as the reason for withholding this information from the public, although the locations of other hazardous sites, such as nuclear power plants, are publicly available.
"The Department of Homeland Security has designated 44 massive coal ash piles as ‘high hazard' because they present a clear and present danger to the people living near them," said Bruce Nilles, director of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign. "People have a right to know if mountains of toxic coal ash are threatening their communities so they can take action and put pressure on their local utilities to demand clean up."
Specialized earth mover attempts to clean up the billion gallon TVA Kingston ash spill. December 28, 2008. (Photo courtesy TVA)
Last Friday at a news conference U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer of California, who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said she has been prohibited from telling the nation about the location of these 44 sites. Senator Boxer has demanded transparency and promised to hold committee hearings on the issue.
"We applaud Senator Boxer for her tireless work to protect communities from the dangers of coal ash," said Nilles.
"EPA was exactly right to ask utilities for information on their high risk waste disposal sites," said Lisa Evans of Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law firm. "The nature and location of these dump sites are precisely what EPA and the public need to know—the free flow of information will help stop the flow of toxic ash into our communities."
In the aftermath of last December's spill of more than a billion gallons of coal ash waste at the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston coal-fired power plant, the U.S. EPA conducted inspections of the nation's coal combustion waste sites.
Agency inspectors identified several hundred coal ash piles across the country including 44 sites that pose a "high hazard." These sites are located in such a way that if the coal ash ponds were to fail, they would pose a threat to people living nearby.
"If these sites are so hazardous and if the neighborhoods nearby could be harmed irreparably, then I believe it is essential to let people know," Boxer said last week. (ENS, June 12, 2009) "In that way, they can press their local authorities who have responsibility for their safety to act now to make the sites safer."
"Coal combustion waste is subject to very limited regulation," Boxer said. "In fact, there are stronger protections for household garbage than for coal ash across the country."
"There is a huge muzzle on me and on my staff, and the only people I can tell about this are the senators whose states are impacted," said Boxer. "We cannot talk to any of their staffs. This is unacceptable. The committee is going to continue hearings into this matter."
Toxic constituents of coal ash include: arsenic, beryllium, boron, cadmium, chromium, chromium VI, cobalt, lead, manganese, mercury, molybdenum, selenium, strontium, thallium, and vanadium, along with dioxins and PAH compounds.
The environmental groups warn that these toxics can leach out, slowly contaminating drinking water sources, or if retaining walls give way, they can flood nearby communities as happened at the TVA's Kingston power plant.
A report distributed by the Tennessee Valley Authority to all area residents this week states that the Tennessee Department of Health and the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation say public and private water supplies are currently not impacted by the ash spill, that the amounts of particulate matter and metals in the air meet all standards and are below levels of health concern, and that occasional exposure to the coal ash should not be a health hazard.
Still, the environmental groups want to know where the high hazard sites are located to help prevent another such ash spill.
"The best way to deal with coal waste is to develop and enforce responsible rules about how it can be disposed, not hide its dangers from the people who live nearby," said Jon Devine, water expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "We expect the government to respond in an open and transparent way, so we can account for and clean up these toxic sites."
Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2009. All rights reserved.