What Is Coal Ash?
Coal ash is our country's second largest waste stream. It is a byproduct of coal combustion and contains high levels of harmful heavy metals such as arsenic, lead and selenium. As technology has allowed power plants to capture more hazardous pollutants that would have gone into our air, these toxins have become part of the solid waste mixture that is coal ash. We have traded one form of toxic pollution for another.
Coal ash ponds are also prone to collapse, as happened near Kingston, Tennessee in 2008 when over 1 billion gallons of coal ash slurry spilled into the Clinch and Emory Rivers. More recently, the third largest coal ash spill in U.S. history occurred early in February 2014 when a Duke Energy coal ash pit in North Carolina breached and released up to 27 million gallons of polluted water and over 82,000 tons of ash. Unfortunately, environmental catastrophes such as this are becoming more frequent.
Threat to Your Health
Most of the coal ash ponds in Illinois are unlined, and many are leaking into adjoining surface and ground waters, polluting drinking water supplies and threatening fish and wildlife. When groundwater near Illinois’ 24 coal-fired power plants was tested by the Illinois EPA in 2009, coal ash contamination was found at EVERY single site.
When coal ash spills, leaks or leaches into nearby groundwater or waterways, the toxins contained within pose serious health risks to nearby communities. In fact, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that living near certain coal ash ponds is significantly more dangerous than smoking a pack of cigarettes a day.
A person living within one mile of an unlined coal ash pond has a 1 in 50 lifetime risk of cancer — more than 2,000 times higher than the EPA goal for cancer risk. Other health risks include birth defects and neurological damage.
What Can We Do?
As long as we continue to burn coal, we will be generating coal ash. Supporting policies that bring about safe clean sources of energy, such as wind and sun will help us become less reliant on coal, and reduce the amount of toxic waste that is generated in Illinois each year.
But we still have coal ash to clean up at 91 sites. As coal-fired power plants close, the IEPA should work with each utility company to develop a closure plan that will protect residents from toxic ash - whether it is airborne or leaking into surface and groundwater. You can support the initiatives of environmental groups in Illinois working with the state to develop strong coal ash rules. Click here to add your voice to those asking for meaningful evaluation of alternatives; a public involvement process; and financial assurances that cover the completion of the work and any monitoring, maintenance, or repairs that may need to be carried out in the future.