Toxic Coal Ash Pond Breached in North Carolina

A toxic coal ash pond at Progress Energy’s Sutton Electric Plant near Wilmington, North Carolina breached recently, spilling toxic coal ash from the unlined storage pond.  The Sutton breach, which is currently estimated to be eight feet deep and 22 feet wide, is a solemn reminder of the dangers that exist with the currently inadequate way toxic coal ash is stored. 

This week’s Sutton breach comes as the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is considering whether to regulate toxic coal ash as the hazardous substance that it is.  Coal ash, the byproduct left over after coal is burned, contains a long list of dangerous toxins, including arsenic, selenium, lead and mercury, which have been linked to organ disease, cancer, respiratory illness, neurological damage and developmental problems.  Living near a coal ash site is significantly more dangerous than smoking a pack of cigarettes a day, according to a risk assessment done by EPA, and people living near unlined coal ash ponds can have a 1 in 50 risk of cancer.  EPA recently concluded a series of public hearings to receive input on the proposed rule to regulate toxic coal ash. 

The Sierra Club offered the following statement in reaction to the Sutton breach:

Statement of Mary Anne Hitt, Director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign

“Our thoughts today are with those who are working to prevent the Sutton coal ash breach from expanding.  Coal ash is toxic and incredibly dangerous to human health and we urge response efforts to do all that is necessary to protect people in nearby communities from the threat posed by this hazardous substance.

“This breach is a tragic reminder of the inadequate and inconsistent national standards for protecting communities, as well as the regulatory loopholes that allow the coal industry to avoid taking responsibility for its waste.  For decades, the coal industry has told the American people that coal ash is safe, just like tobacco executives told Americans that cigarettes don’t cause cancer and auto executives told us that installing catalytic converters would wreck the industry. If these examples, the BP Oil Disaster, the 2008 Tennessee coal ash tragedy and this recent Sutton breach have taught us anything, it’s that we can’t just take the polluter’s word for it anymore. 

“In December, 2008, a dam at TVA’s Kingston coal-fired power plant failed in Harriman, TN, spilling more than a billion gallons of toxic coal ash onto nearby communities.  The victims of the TVA disaster are still dealing with the terrible consequences of this massive disaster.   While it is incredibly frustrating to know that both the TVA disaster and the Sutton breach could have been prevented if adequate federal protections were in place, it is important to remember that there doesn’t need to be a breach or spill for coal ash to have a harmful effect on the health of communities.  Even when coal ash remains in storage ponds, toxic heavy metals seep into waterways, threatening the drinking waters for families living near one of the more than 600 coal ash sites around the country.  Improved testing methods reveal that coal ash is significantly more toxic than originally thought and has an increased risk of leaking into waterways.  The levels of pollution, like arsenic, seeping from coal ash were found to be significantly higher than what is considered ‘safe’ for drinking water.

“Strong federal safeguards need to be issued quickly before more communities are exposed. Continuing to ignore scientific and safety concerns could come at a high cost.  Effective coal ash regulations must require basic protections for communities such as composite liners, water run-off controls, groundwater monitoring, and financial assurance that companies pay to clean up what they pollute.

“We offer our thoughts to those responding to the breach in North Carolina and we urge EPA to make sure this never happens again by adopting strong federal safeguards for toxic coal ash.”

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