Senior Attorney Frank Holleman leads regional litigation and policy work on coal ash pollution. In light of several major recent developments around coal ash regulations last week, we asked him to reflect on the highlights from several days that included a deadline for utilities to release groundwater monitoring data from their coal ash sites. This was followed the next day by an announcement from the Environmental Protection Agency that they plan to dramatically weaken the protections built in to the federal rule overseeing coal ash management, the Coal Combustion Residuals Rule.
SELC: At a time when we’re hearing more and more about coal ash pollution, the Trump Administration-led EPA last week took many by surprise by actually proposing to weaken federal coal ash protections. Tell us more about this announcement.
Holleman: The Trump administration granted the wishes of lobbyists for the coal-burning utilities and is proposing to gut protections for communities and clean water that were adopted by the EPA in 2015. The EPA proposes to eliminate firm limits on pollutants in our groundwater and leave those decisions to the polluters-- powerful utilities-- and politically-influenced state agencies. Plus it proposes to prolong the lives of old polluting unlined coal ash pits.
Keep in mind that, for decades, utilities like Duke Energy, TVA, Dominion, and the Southern Company have disposed of millions of tons of wet coal ash in huge unlined pits sitting in groundwater on the banks of our rivers and drinking water reservoirs. Coal ash contains mercury, arsenic, lead, and other contaminants that leak into our groundwater, lakes, and rivers. And sometimes these coal ash pits fail, like TVA’s coal ash lagoon that collapsed into the Emory and Clinch Rivers at Kingston, Tennessee, in 2008, and Duke Energy’s Dan River lagoons that spewed millions of gallons of coal ash pollution and almost 40,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River in 2014.
In 2015, the EPA adopted minimum national standards that require utilities to clean up their coal ash groundwater contamination and to retire old malfunctioning coal ash lagoons.
SELC: At the same time as this EPA announcement, utilities were required to release information on coal ash sites last week. Why and what do we know now?
Holleman: Any junior high science student would understand that when the coal-burning utilities dispose of coal ash in unlined water-filled pits next to our rivers and lakes, arsenic, mercury, and other toxic substances are going to leak into the groundwater and adjacent rivers and lakes. However, some utilities never tested for their groundwater pollution and others never made the information public. For the first time, the 2015 EPA coal ash rules made the utilities test for groundwater contamination at their coal ash sites and publish that information on a website so communities would know the threats they face. That information became public on March 2. The evening before, the Trump Administration proposed to protect the utilities from the consequences of what they were being forced to disclose.
As we expected, unlined coal ash lagoons all across the Southeast are leaking harmful pollutants like arsenic and mercury into our groundwater. The testing also uncovered widespread radioactive pollution in groundwater at utility coal ash sites.
SELC: Could you highlight some of the initial, noteworthy developments in SELC’s region to come out of last week’s coal ash news?
Holleman: The Southeast has more than its share of utility coal ash pits, because our utilities have heavily relied upon burning coal to produce electricity. Almost every river system in the Southeast has at least one set of these leaking lagoons on its banks, and some rivers have more than one, like the Catawba, Waccamaw, and Dan Rivers.
The new data confirmed what we knew about North Carolina – that Duke Energy’s coal ash is polluting groundwater all across North Carolina. The groundwater testing also confirmed that Alabama Power is contaminating groundwater at all its sites in the state. Testing from TVA showed groundwater contamination at its coal ash site in Memphis, which poses a threat to the region’s drinking water supply. Similar contamination was reported by utilities across our region.
After the Kingston and Dan River disasters, all the utilities in the Southeast were put on notice that they should not leave their coal ash in aging, unlined leaking pits along our waterways and should move the ash to dry lined storage out of the groundwater and away from our rivers and lakes. Or, the utilities can recycle the ash into concrete and cement.
After these stunning revelations, there can be no doubt that the Southeast has to be protected from this irresponsible and dangerous utility practice. Unfortunately, the Trump Administration is trying to bail out the worst of the utility polluters. Fortunately, communities across the Southeast, and the attorneys at SELC, are continuing the fight to protect our families and clean water from coal ash pollution.