Disaster in Waiting

The massive spill of toxic coal ash from TVA’s Kingston plant in Tennessee just before Christmas dramatized how unsafe disposal practices can damage the environment and threaten the health of residents downstream. But according to data reported by the industry to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (USEPA) Toxics Release Inventory (TRI), power plants dump millions of pounds of toxic metals that are contained in coal ash into wet surface impoundments every year. Based on USEPA’s analysis, approximately 74% of these impoundments are unlined, increasing the risk that toxic pollutants like arsenic and lead will leach into groundwater or nearby rivers and streams.

Between 2000 and 2006, the power industry reported depositing coal ash containing more than 124 million pounds of the following six toxic pollutants into surface impoundments: arsenic, chromium, lead, nickel, selenium, and thallium. These pollutants are present in coal ash, prone to leaching from ash into the environment and can be highly toxic at minute levels (parts per million or billion) to either humans or aquatic life, or both. More information about the health effects of each contaminant can be found in the report.