Ten years ago today, the earthen wall of a coal ash impoundment in Kingston, Tennessee, ruptured, sending 1.1 billion gallons of coal ash slurry rushing across the countryside, destroying homes and chocking streams and wetlands with the toxic leftovers from burning coal for electricity. Luckily, no one died in the flood, but more than 30 workers have died after cleaning up the spill. Another 200 workers are now sick or dying from blood cancer and other illnesses linked to heavy metals such as arsenic, selenium and mercury that are found in coal ash. A ceremony and memorial to honor the workers is being held today in Harriman, Tennessee, and a class action lawsuit against an environmental contractor who hired the cleanup workers is winding through the courts.
The Kingston disaster was the worst coal ash spill in United States history and inspired environmentalists to push for tighter regulations over the past decade, but pollution from coal ash remains a widespread and ongoing problem. Across the country, coal ash, boiler slag and other combustion waste from power plants is stored in open air pits and impoundments, where rainfall creates a toxic slurry full of heavy metals. At least 67 coal ash dumps in 22 states are currently leaking harmful chemicals into groundwater and will require cleanup efforts in the coming year, according to recent data posted by power companies and compiled by environmental groups, who expect that additional leaking pits have yet to be publicly identified.
Lessons From the Kingston Coal Ash Spill
The Kingston coal ash spill’s impacts were felt far beyond Tennessee. Coal ash from the spill was scraped from the rural landscape and loaded onto trains bound for a landfill in Uniontown, Alabama. The arrival of coal at Uniontown set off a long-running dispute between landfill operators and members of the rural, majority-Black community living nearby over whether the expanding landfill was damaging a historic cemetery and making people sick. Uniontown residents took their fight to the federal level and became well known in the movement for environmental justice, where activists fight back against polluting industries that habitually place their facilities near low-income neighborhoods and communities of color.
The Kingston spill is not the only coal ash disaster in recent memory. In 2014, a Duke Energy coal sludge pond in North Carolina leaked thousands of tons of coal ash and millions of gallons of contaminated water into the Dan River, turning the water and ominous grey and compromising drinking water and ecosystems for miles. Environmental groups have tussled with Duke Energy in courtrooms for years over leaky coal ash pits the company maintains across North Carolina and were on guard as Hurricane Florence ravaged the state this September. Environmentalists say at least one Duke coal ash pond overflowed during the storm and contaminated the Cape Fear River with heavy metals, although the company has disputed the extent of the pollution in statements to Truthout and other outlets.
Despite Health Risks and Climate Change, Trump Is Still Pushing Coal
Coal continues to power many nations, despite alarming reports about climate disruption and a worldwide movement to thwart its worst impacts. The continued prevalence of coal-based power is due in part to right-wing politicians like President Trump in the United States and Andrzej Duda in Poland. Coal is a major source of electricity in both countries (as well as in China and much of the developing world), and US and Polish representatives promoted coal power at the recent UN climate change conference in the Polish city of Katowice. The host country was not shy about its dependence on coal and literally decked the halls of the conference with piles of the dirtiest fossil fuel we burn.
Back home, the Trump administration is working to fulfill a central campaign promise and buoy the coal industry by systematically rolling back Obama-era regulations that would force power utilities either to turn away from coal or burn it in a much cleaner fashion. At the helm of Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is Andrew Wheeler, a former lobbyist for the coal industry who shares Trump’s zeal for keeping coal central to the US energy portfolio. Wheeler’s most recent targets for elimination include limits on carbon dioxide from new and modified power plants and rules reducing air emissions of mercury — a potent neurotoxin and a danger to public health.
The regulations the Trump administration is working to weaken were established during the Obama administration, which came under mounting pressure to clean up or shut down coal-burning power plants as concerns about climate disruption grew and coal ash contamination was documented across the country. A rule on coal ash disposal finally came in 2015, but environmentalists were disappointed. The EPA refused to classify coal ash as “hazardous waste” that requires strict federal oversight, and exempted coal ash dumps at retired power plants from new rules requiring liners to prevent toxins from leaching into the groundwater. Jennifer Peters, the water program director at Clean Water Action, said unlined coal ash dumps threaten waterways across the country.
“A lot of these coal ash ponds are sited in the groundwater table, or they are directly next to a river, or both, in a lot of cases,” Peters said in an interview.
The 2015 rules do require utility companies to monitor groundwater around their coal ash dumps and report the results to the public when problems are found. After digging through lengthy reports issued by utilities across the country, Peters and other advocates determined that 67 coal ash dumps in Illinois, North Carolina, Arizona, Montana and 18 other states are leaking heavy and even radioactive metals including arsenic, lithium, mercury and radium 226 into the water table. This came as little surprise to environmentalists who have been studying coal ash since the Kingston spill; the vast majority of the leaky pits are unlined, allowing the waste to sit in direct contact with the ground. In Joliet, Illinois, for example, the plume of pollution spreading from an old quarry-turned coal ash dump threatens rivers, schools and residential areas, according to environmental groups.
“Groundwater is not only a drinking water source for many people — it also often flows directly into waterways,” said Larissa Liebmann, staff attorney at Waterkeeper Alliance, in a statement. “Now that these companies finally admitted they are causing this contamination, they need to take action immediately to clean up their toxic messes.”
Environmental groups filed a lawsuit arguing that the 2015 coal ash rules did not go far enough to prevent water contamination, and in August a federal court agreed, citing the disasters in Tennessee and North Carolina and the growing concern over unlined ash dumps. This has sent the EPA back to the drawing board to draw up new rules for the future of the roughly 1,300 coal ash dumps across the country, including those next to power plants that have switched to burning natural gas or shut down altogether. However, just weeks before the court ruling, the Trump administration further weakened the rule by extending a deadline for cleaning up leaky coal ash pits and loosening requirements for groundwater monitoring. Environmental groups are now challenging that rollback as well.
“If we hadn’t gotten a Trump administration and we had a Clinton administration, and they let the Obama rules go through, all the sites that had proven damage and leakage would have to be closed completely by April 2019,” Peters said, adding that utilities can further delay cleanup thanks to Trump’s pro-industry agenda.
The disaster in Kingston stunned the nation and sparked public outrage, and many observers thought it was the beginning of the end for storing coal ash sludge in open, unlined ponds, impoundments and pits. A decade later, little has changed in many communities where coal is burned for electricity, even after the Dan River was chocked with coal ash in 2015. Monitoring has improved, and for the first time, utilities must inform the public when they discover their coal ash dumps are leaking and make a plan to fix them. Finding a permanent solution for coal ash is expensive; it could involve retrofitting existing dumps with liners, or moving the sludge and slurry into a new, lined dump altogether. Some power companies — including Duke Energy, which faced heavy backlash after the Dan River spill — have started this process, but others are still kicking the can down the road. So far, our elected officials have let them do just that.