By releasing coal ash sites, EPA raises more questions

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Last February, in a four-month investigation into the dangers of coal ash, the Center covered the notorious, ash-laden water in Colstrip, Montana, home to a behemoth coal-fired power plant known by the same name. Now, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has revealed that the Colstrip plant’s ash ponds — the ones responsible for all that toxic water — are on its much-anticipated list of 44 potentially highly dangerous coal-ash dumpsites nationwide.

Yesterday, the EPA disclosed the ash ponds identified as “high hazard” on its website, reversing its prior position of keeping their locations secret. The list of 44 reveals that 26 power companies, including PPLMontana, maintain ash ponds that, were they to burst like that disastrous coal-ash spill in Tennessee last December, would cause property damage and loss of life.

Coal ash is the toxic byproduct of burning coal to generate electricity. For lack of a safer disposal method, at least 70 millions tons of coal ash is dumped annually into ponds or landfills in states across the country.

“By compiling a list of these facilities,” EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said in a press statement. “EPA will be better able to identify and reduce potential risks.”

Lisa Evans, of EarthJustice, one of four environmental groups that filed a records request for the list last week, applauded the EPA’s move toward openness. Still, she told Papertrail, “The list raises as many questions as it answers.” For instance, the utility that first sparked the EPA inquiry into ash ponds — the Tennessee Valley Authority — remains conspicuously absent from the list. “Isn’t it suspicious that you don’t find TVA on the list?” Evans asks, adding, “Because this stuff has been unregulated for so long, it’s going to take an equally long time to tease out all the information that we need to know” from the power industry and from EPA.

Responding to Papertrail’s inquiries, an agency spokeswoman confirmed that “the TVA sites were not classified as high hazard potential dams and thus were not part of the 44.” She said that the primary reason for such a classification is for dams “where failure or mis-operation will probably cause a loss of human life.”

In Montana, meanwhile, Jory Ruggiero, the lawyer for the 57 Colstrip residents who won a $25 million settlement because of the coal-ash contamination there, noted the bigger irony to this latest development: That the possible rupture of Colstrip’s ash ponds seems the least of people’s worries. “The far more insidious danger is the contamination caused by coal ash in groundwater,” Ruggiero says. “What’s far more hazardous for the people of Colstrip today is the lack of a proper clean up.”

That might be true as well for the rest of the 44 “high hazard” sites. EPA’s list, as Papertrail reported, covers 10 states — Arizona, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Montana, Ohio, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Most sites — 20 of them and seven with multiple ash ponds — overlap with the more than 400 ash ponds and landfills that the Center plotted on its coal-ash map.

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