Last year, Hurricane Matthew spilled coal waste into the Neuse River and burst the dirt embankment of a cooling pond at the H.F. Lee power plant in Goldsboro, NC. As record-breaking Hurricane Irma barrels toward Florida and likely up toward Atlanta, at least 33 coal-fired power plants lie in her potential path, highlighting the dangers of relying on coal for electricity and storing ash in outdated sludge ponds.
While some of these at-risk plants use safer storage methods or are in the process of ash excavation, it’s common for coal ash to be stored as a watery sludge in settling ponds sometimes separated only by a narrow dirt berm from rivers, lakes, and coasts.
With the kind of intense rainfall associated with a hurricane, water in the pond can overtop the berm and pour out, or by overfilling the pond, build up more pressure than the dam is designed to take. Like the ones at Lee, dams may not stand up to a strong hurricane, putting nearby communities and water bodies at risk of inundation with lead, arsenic, and other toxics on top of potentially devastating wind and water damage. Utilities sometimes pump water out of overfilled ponds to avoid such catastrophes.
According to data compiled at www.SoutheastCoalAsh.org from utility reports, the plants in Irma’s path have a total storage capacity upwards of 19 billion gallons, and are known to actually contain at least five billion gallons of wastewater and sludge, and 70 million total tons of coal ash. The actual totals may be much higher, since all three numbers are not available for every plant; a few have had some ash or water removed since the numbers were reported. You can use this interactive map to see if there’s ash at a power plant near you and how it’s stored.
The best-known coal ash dam failure occurred in Kingston, TN just before Christmas 2008 in the middle of the night during a rain storm (but not a hurricane), and the damage was severe. Ash surged across a fork of the river and wiped out an entire neighborhood on the other side, knocking houses off their foundations, and coating riverbanks with toxic sludge. Another catastrophic leak on the Dan River in 2014 coated the riverbed for 70 miles downstream. Duke Energy maintains that only about a pick-up truck-bed worth of ash spilled at the Lee plant, where luckily the major breach was in a pond that didn’t contain ash.
For scale, the Kingston disaster spilled over one billion gallons of ash and water into 300 acres of neighboring land, and the Dan River disaster 24 million gallons and 39,000 tons of ash.
Thankfully, as of Friday morning, the full force of Irma looks less likely to directly hit any plants with ponds rated “high hazard,” meaning loss of life would be likely if a dam failed – the red icons on the coal ash map above. However, several “significant hazard” rated ponds (yellow icons), which would cause substantial economic and environmental damage if they broke, remain in her path. EPA made the ratings in 2009, though many plants could not be rated due to limited data.
If you live near an ash pond and observe a spill, please STAY SAFE and let us know what’s going on when you can do so safely. Our friends at the Waterkeeper Alliance will be arranging flyovers of affected sites to gather footage like the photo above. To report an incident, call Pete Harrison at 828-582-0422. Please also alert the proper state authorities; contact numbers are provided below.
We hope everyone, especially power company workers, stays safe during this storm!
Florida Department of Environmental Protection State Watch Office (24 hour): 1-800-320-0519
Georgia Environmental Protection Division 24-hour State Warning Point (800) 241-4113; during business hours 770-387-4900
South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control Emergency Response Line 1-888-481-0125
Alabama Department of Environmental Management 24-hour State Warning Point 1-800-843-0699 or call nearest regional office during office hours:
Montgomery Branch Field Office (334) 260-2700
Birmingham Branch Field Office (205) 942-6168
Decatur Branch Field Office (256) 353-1713
Mobile Field Office (251) 450-3400
Coastal Section Office (251) 304-1176
North Carolina: after hours or on weekends, call (800) 858-0368. During business hours call Regional Offices and ask for Division of Water Resources (this page has maps of which counties are covered by each office)
Winston Salem: 336-776-9800
Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation: during normal business hours call 1-888-891-8332; After hours or on weekends call State of TN Emergency Management Agency 615-741-0001.
To report spills to the National Response Center, call (800) 424-8802 (24 hours).