Coal's Toxic Sludge

It's deadly, barely regulated, and everywhere. Can Obama crack down on America's second-biggest river of industrial waste?

March 17, 2010 4:28 PM ET

Big Coal has spent millions of dollars over the past year touting the virtues of what the industry calls "clean coal," but it's no secret that coal is the dirtiest fossil fuel. When you burn it, coal releases monstrous quantities of deadly compounds and gases — and it all has to go somewhere. The worst of the waste — heavy metals like arsenic, cadmium and mercury, all of which are highly toxic — are concentrated in the ash that's left over after coal is burned or in the dirty sludge that's scrubbed from smokestacks. Each year, coal plants in the U.S. churn out nearly 140 million tons of coal ash — more than 900 pounds for every American — generating the country's second-largest stream of industrial waste, surpassed only by mining. If you piled all the coal ash on a single football field, it would create a toxic mountain more than 20 miles high.

As the World Burns

For decades, the industry has gotten away with dumping coal ash pretty much wherever it wants. It poured the stuff into vast lagoons, dumped it into mines, used it to pave roads, spread it on crops as fertilizer, even mixed it into everyday items like concrete, wallboard, vinyl flooring, bowling balls, potting soil and toothpaste. There are no federal regulations to speak of. Many states have minimal restrictions on where and how coal ash can be dumped, but the coal industry has a long history of buying off state regulators with a junket to Vegas and a few rounds of golf. In short, the industry had it made. Nearly 300 billion pounds of coal ash simply vanished from view each year, with less oversight than household garbage.

This article appeared in the April 1, 2010 issue of Rolling Stone. The issue is available in the online archive.

But all that changed just before 1 a.m. on December 22nd, 2008, when an earthen dam collapsed at a storage pond brimming with coal waste near Kingston, Tennessee. Within hours, a billion gallons of gray-black sludge had oozed into the once-lovely Emory River, destroying nearby homes and poisoning the water. It was the largest industrial disaster in American history, a flood of waste 100 times bigger than the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989. The cleanup of the river, which will take years to complete, is expected to cost as much as $1 billion.

The Dark Lord of Coal Country

"The spill pulled back the curtain on a huge untold story that had never gotten much attention," says Bruce Nilles, director of a Sierra Club campaign called Beyond Coal. "Everyone had been focused on the problems with mountaintop-removal mining and on the air pollution from burning coal. But after the dam at Kingston collapsed, it turned everyone's attention on the dangers of toxic coal ash."

The Spill, The Scandal and the President

There are currently 584 impoundments that store coal ash in 35 states, and the vast majority of the sites are not only unmonitored, they have no systems in place to keep the waste from leaking into groundwater. Studies by the Environmental Protection Agency found that toxic elements in coal ash can leach into drinking water at concentrations that far exceed federal safety standards. In 2007, the EPA estimated that some residents who live near unlined ash ponds run a risk of cancer from arsenic contamination as high as one in 50 — a level 2,000 times greater than the EPA's threshold for acceptable risk.

As it happened, the Senate confirmation hearing of EPA chief Lisa Jackson was held just a few weeks after the Kingston spill. When Obama's environmental watchdog was asked what she would do to protect the public from coal ash, Jackson indicated that it might be time to crack down on the industry's dirty secret. "The EPA currently has, and has in the past, assessed its regulatory options," she said. "I think it is time to re-ask those questions."

National Affairs: Political and national news coverage from RS contributing editor Tim Dickinson

A year later, Jackson now appears poised to make good on that pledge. In the coming weeks, the EPA is expected to propose new rules laying out federal standards for how coal ash is stored, monitored and recycled. But the exact shape and substance of those rules remain uncertain — and nailing down the details may prove to be the clearest indication yet of whether the Obama administration is prepared to get tough with an industry it has left largely untouched. The White House Office of Management and Budget is currently reviewing a cost-benefit analysis of the rules — and big electric utilities are waging a furious last-minute lobbying campaign to keep them from being enacted. Sen. Evan Bayh, who accepted $126,000 in campaign contributions from electric utilities last year alone, drafted a letter to the White House — signed by 26 of his fellow senators — urging the EPA to back off. The Western Governors' Association also weighed in, urging the administration to leave coal-ash regulation to the states.

"Environmental catastrophes like the Kingston spill can be opportunities for sweeping reform," says Eric Schaeffer, who served as the EPA's top enforcement official under Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. "For coal ash, this is the moment. We need to get this done."

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