Coal Combustion Waste – Another Dirty Aspect of “Clean” Coal

Coal combustion waste (CCW) is the fly-ash and other residue left over from burning coal. It typically contains toxic components, such as heavy metals, that are known carcinogens. CCW is disposed of in landfills, dumped (legally!) in leaky old mines and quarries, and often stored onsite in large impoundments near the coal-fired power plants.

In yet another stunning reality check on the Myth of Clean Coal, one such impoundment failed last December at the power plant in Kingston, Tennessee, spilling over 1.1 billion gallons of toxic fly-ash sludge into neighboring residences and the Clinch and Emory Rivers:

Aerial photograph of the Kingston spill taken one day after the event.

Earthjustice called us, wondering if CCW waste impoundments could be vulnerable to flooding. Power plants need a huge supply of fresh water for cooling, so they’re typically located right on the banks of large rivers. We took a look at 11 coal-fired power plants operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) – including the notorious Kingston facility – to assess the risk that CCW impoundments could be breached by flooding. Using Google Earth, SkyTruth identified areas where the impoundments lie within high-risk flood zones by:

  1. locating the TVA power plants from a national database recently published by NRDC;
  2. delineating what we interpreted as on-site CCW impoundments; and
  3. overlaying the federal government’s official “Stay-Dry” flood dataset from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) that shows areas of high flood risk.

The FEMA flood data only covered 6 of the 11 sites. FEMA notes that their digital Stay-Dry dataset is incomplete; FEMA also produces paper flood maps, but we were unable to find any online digital flood data covering these sites. And Google Earth had old, low-resolution imagery for 4 of the sites, including Kingston, making it difficult to delineate the impoundments in those areas with high confidence (you can’t use Google for everything…yet).

Nevertheless, out of the 4 sites for which we had both full flood data and high-resolution imagery, we found 2 clear instances (Gallatin and Widows Creek) where impoundments are located within areas mapped by FEMA as high-risk for flooding. We also identified another facility (Johnsonville) where the FEMA data are missing, but it’s reasonable to infer that the impoundments are in an area of high risk.

Given the serious flooding we’ve seen lately on the Red River and some of our other midwestern rivers, not to mention the Great Flood of 1993, it seems like we’re tempting fate by storing large quantities of toxic waste in officially designated “high-risk” flood zones.

UPDATE 4/3/09: Amy Mall at NRDC just let me know about yet another aspect of the CCW mess — “In Arkansas, some of this coal waste is dumped in pits used by the natural gas industry to store drilling waste, and buried. Some of these pits are on people’s property, close to their homes, and the toxic ash blows in the air…” Read her blog post to learn more.

UPDATE 4/13/09: The Tennessean newspaper just published an article on this subject, referencing SkyTruth’s maps and images. Their website also includes links to other images and resources. Check it out here.

UPDATE 5/11/09: Earthjustice and Environmental Integrity Project just released an analysis of a 1999 study conducted by the U.S. Environmnetal Protection Agency that found increased cancer risk for people living near CCW dumps. Apparently EPA sat on this report during the previous administration, only releasing it now under new leadership. I guess elevated cancer risk doesn’t jive very well with “clean coal” boosterism.

Why support SkyTruth? A Funder’s Perspective

I work at the WestWind Foundation, a family foundation based in Charlottesville, Virginia, that provides support to non-profits working to stop mountaintop removal coal mining. WestWind has supported SkyTruth since 2004. Before coming to WestWind, I knew little of the technical analysis performed by SkyTruth. But in the past year, I have learned something of the destruction being wrought everyday upon the southern Appalachian mountains. Blasting off the tops of mountains to extract coal contributes to groundwater contamination and health problems, disrupts the lives of local people living with constant detonation, fills in hundreds of miles of streams, and destroys the ecological heritage of one of the most biologically diverse regions of the country.

At first, I wondered how a picture from space could possibly capture all the destruction, devastation, pain, and injustice that is caused by this type of coal mining. When I had the opportunity to view SkyTruth’s maps and images, and to learn exactly what their modeling and analysis could show, I was amazed. David, John and their team have uncovered and mapped the extent of mountaintop removal mining in the southern Appalachians, something that has never before been undertaken by government or industry (let alone a small non-profit). I watched, amazed, as David showed how the devastation has advanced over a thirty-year period, devouring a majority of the land area within certain counties in southwestern Virginia and eastern Kentucky.

Although the data and the maps are impressive, they alone are not what make SkyTruth’s work successful and engaging. The partnership between SkyTruth and Appalachian Voices is a truly unique relationship between science and the grassroots, and between data analysis and story-telling. Appalachian Voices has built a revolutionary website that allows anyone in the country to input their zip code and trace their energy utility’s use of mountaintop removal coal. SkyTruth provides the technical data and maps that show which mountains have been destroyed; Appalachian Voices provides the human stories behind the devastation. Both strategies are necessary to end this kind of ecological and community destruction.

What continues to impress me about SkyTruth is that this kind of behind-the-scenes advocacy is not limited to southern Appalachian coal communities. SkyTruth works to illustrate the impacts of natural gas drilling in Wyoming; diamond mining in Canada; oil and tar sands in Canada, Australia, and Colorado; trawling in the Gulf of Mexico, and the list goes on. What lies at the heart of SkyTruth’s mission is a deep concern for the planet’s shared ecological commons, and the commitment to bringing images of their destruction to the public.