Investigative Series: Coal's Dirty Secret

In May 2010, Facing South published COAL'S DIRTY SECRET -- a week-long, eye-opening investigation into the growing but under-reported threat of toxic coal ash to our health, communities and environment.

In the series, Facing South reporter Sue Sturgis documents how coal ash is our country's second-largest industrial waste stream and full of arsenic, lead and other dangerous substances, yet remains unregulated by the federal government and faces only a bare patchwork of state rules.

Sturgis also looks at the looming battle over coal ash in Washington, with the EPA introducing new proposed standards -- and utility companies and other powerful interests promising to fight them every step of the way.

Facing South's investigation has already had a big impact: It's been featured in dozens of blogs and media outlets across the country, including Grist and ProPublica. It was even featured in a Department of Homeland Security daily briefing [pdf]!

On the policy front, North Carolina State Rep. Pricey Harrison announced she would be introducing legislation for new state laws to regulate coal ash in NC.

In case you missed it, below is the full week-long series. Thank you for reading -- and thank you for your support of Facing South and our public interest journalism for a better South.

* * *


Coal ash is one of the country's biggest waste streams and is full of toxic substances, yet it remains mostly unregulated. Can Washington overcome the fierce opposition of energy interests to protect communities and the environment?

* * *


In December 2008, one of the largest environmental disasters in U.S. history unfolded at the TVA's Kingston coal plant when a massive coal ash holding pond burst. A year and a half later, communities are still feeling the impact -- and there are fears that without federal action a similar disaster could strike elsewhere.

* * *


After years of inaction, federal officials are mulling new regulations to confront the growing problem of coal ash. But energy companies have fought off regulation before, and they're fighting the new rules every step of the way.

* * *


Coal ash isn't just dumped; it's increasingly being recycled into building materials and other uses. But in states like North Carolina, the failure to adequately regulate one so-called "beneficial use" of the toxic-filled waste is putting communities at risk.

* * *


Disaster has pushed Washington to call for new standards for handling waste from coal-fired power plants. It's invited citizens to weigh in, but will their voices carry above lobbyists fighting tough regulations?

* * *


Tons of coal ash generated each year by U.S. coal-fired power plants: 150 million

Gallons of coal ash that spilled from a failed impoundment at TVA's Kingston power plant in Tennessee in 2008: 1 billion

Number of homes that disaster destroyed, damaged: 3, 42

Pounds of toxic pollutants the spill dumped into the nearby Emory and Clinch rivers: 2.66 million

Year that red flags were first raised about the safety of the plant's impoundments: 1985

Number of similar impoundments located nationwide: 584

Number that have been rated as high hazards, meaning a failure like TVA's would likely kill people: 49

Number of proven and suspected environmental damage cases caused by coal ash across the U.S.: more than 100

Chance that people who live near coal ash impoundments and drink from wells will get cancer due to water contamination: 1 in 50

Cubic yards of TVA's spilled coal ash slated to be disposed of in a landfill near Uniontown, Ala.: 3 million

Percent of Uniontown residents who are African-American: 88

Percent of Uniontown residents who live below the poverty line: almost 50

Times by which the arsenic found in runoff from that landfill exceeded the safe drinking water standard: 80

Percent of coal ash generated in the U.S. that is recycled for other uses, such as a substitute for fill dirt in construction projects: about 44

Number of such coal ash fills that have been linked to groundwater contamination in North Carolina: 3

Percentage points by which the average poverty rate of N.C. counties with coal ash fill contamination exceeds the state poverty rate rate: almost 10

Percent of those fill sites in North Carolina that have failed to comply with the state requirement to record the coal ash's presence on the deed: 44

Estimated cubic yards of TVA's spilled coal ash expected to remain in the river after cleanup: 500,000

Number of lawsuits TVA is now facing over the Kingston disaster: more than 50

Estimated bill for the Kingston cleanup, to be paid by TVA's customers: $1.2 billion

Year that Congress exempted coal ash from the federal law governing hazardous waste: 1980

Year that the Environmental Protection Agency first said federal regulations were needed for coal ash: 2000

In the lobbying blitz that ensued, factor by which the electric power industry's estimate of the regulation's cost exceeded the government's: 13

Year when EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson again called for federal regulatory action on coal ash: 2009

In the lobbying blitz that ensued, number of meetings the White House Office of Management and Budget held with industry officials: 30

Number of meetings OMB held with environmental and public health groups: 12

Date that EPA released the first-ever proposed federal regulations for coal ash: 5/2010

Length of comment period that will begin as soon as the regulations are published in the Federal Register, which could happen as soon as next week: 90 days

All figures from the Facing South/Institute for Southern Studies special investigation, Coal's Dirty Secret.

* * *

Investigative Fund.jpg Like our reporting? Please consider making a tax-deductible donation to the Institute Investigative Fund. Thank you!