Guest blog: Chronicling coal ash stories in the U.S.



By Rhiannon Fionn-Bowman


I never intended to become the “Coal Ash Queen,” which is what the Sierra Club in Charlotte, N.C., deemed me years ago. I’d never even heard of coal ash before the Tennessee Valley Authority’s coal ash disaster that made international news days before Christmas in 2008 after it coated more than 300 acres and filled two rivers with coal ash.


Like most folks, I flip a switch and expect electricity, turn a knob and water pours forth, roll my trash to the curb and never even notice when it disappears. However, while we’ve been dumping waste and forgetting about it since the dawn of humanity, we can no longer ignore coal ash and its ripple effects. As things go, communities are beginning to band together to educate their selves on what coal ash is and how it affects their communities.

Coal ash the second-largest waste stream in the U.S., and unlike many other waste products, it is mostly unregulated at the state level and completely unregulated at the federal level. (The largest waste stream is mining waste, which includes the same contaminants and is also often stored in slurry waste ponds.) But, it’s not just any waste product. Nearly 25 percent of the elements listed on the periodic table can be found in coal ash, including heavy metals like arsenic and chromium as well as radioactive elements such as thorium and uranium.

Before the natural gas boom, the U.S. alone was generating about 140 tons of coal ash annually for decades. Some coal ash can be reused as an ingredient in other products, like concrete or asphalt, but most of it has been dumped in unlined, mostly unregulated landfills and slurry ponds that soak in groundwater and drain into waterways … the same ones that eventually pour forth at the turn of a knob.

While the coal industry has been handling coal ash waste since its inception, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (E.P.A.) continues to lag behind. For more than three decades, the E.P.A. has considered regulating coal ash, but when it does the industry pushes back and thus has been left to ‘self-regulate’. And they do, for the most part, but the information collected on company-owned coal ash landfills and slurry waste ponds isn’t public information unless it’s also shared with a public entity, like a state environmental agency or the E.P.A. That means that the public is largely ignorant about what the industry is leaching into our water.

That’s where my job becomes important: I’m an independent investigative journalist, and I’ve been on the coal ash case since the summer of 2009. I had just graduated from college, at 32, and was writing for The Mountain Island Weekly. When the E.P.A. released its list of high-hazard coal ash ponds in the wake of the TVA disaster, I looked for ponds in our coverage area. I found two of them, both behind Duke Energy’s Riverbend coal plant, both draining into the lake that serves as the main drinking water source for Charlotte – North Carolina’s largest city – and many surrounding communities.

‘High-hazard’ means that if the earthen (read: man-made) dams that hold the slurry ponds in place should fail, like the one in Tennessee did, not only will there be vast environmental-, property-, and economic damage, but it’s anticipated that people will die.

So I dug in with the zeal of a new journalist, and nearly four years later I’m still digging. In a time
when environmental journalism is in decline, I am literally paying to work – I’ve already invested
about $20,000 of my own money, determined to collect coal ash stories from the government,
citizens, industry and environmentalists and provide as much information as possible on the issue at CoalAshChronicles.com (which will soon get an infusion of new information). I’m also working on a documentary. It’s a challenge as more and more people are wondering if the black dust they find in and on their houses is causing the illnesses in their families. They’re having their wells tested and wondering if they should drink their water, and they’re banding together and begging the federal government to do something about coal ash.

At the same time, Congress continues to try to prevent the E.P.A. from regulating coal ash by adding amendments to bills, and even creating new bills that are aimed directly at coal ash. Meanwhile, several environmental groups and state environmental agencies are filing lawsuits – in fact, the Catawba Riverkeeper and the Southern Environmental Law Center announced on Tues., March 26, 2013, that they are suing Duke Energy over the two unlined, high-hazard coal ash ponds I’ve been researching and writing about for years.

Energy companies aren’t the only focus of litigation. The E.P.A. is also being sued for failure to protect human- and environmental health. In 2010, the E.P.A. did come close to regulating coal ash when it released two proposed regulations, went on a public-hearing tour and collected nearly half a million comments. But, that’s all it’s done; three years later – and more than four since the TVA disaster, there are still no federal regulations for coal ash.

Meanwhile, my sources in many states environmental agencies tell me that they’re waiting on the feds to do something so that they’ll know what to do, which means that even state regulations are largely on hold. In the meantime, the amount of money spent on government lobbying by the coal industry has skyrocketed.

This delay-of-game pushes me on. As I drove to Alaska this past summer to collect Rose DeLima’s story for Coal Ash Chronicles, I decided that I would not stop digging into the coal ash issue and sharing the information I uncover until it’s settled. For Rose, though, it already is.

She lived next to a coal plant as a youth and again in retirement, not by choice but because one moved in next to her family’s home. She died on Dec. 12, 2012, but before she did, her daughter had Rose’sblood tested for heavy metals. They discovered that Rose had an extremely high selenium level, which is associated with coal ash and is not something that usually humans run into unless they live in an industrial area.

Selenium is known to cause horrific deformities in fish and is thought to cause deformities in the
extremities of humans. About a decade before she died, Rose had to have all of her toes amputated because they were so deformed she couldn’t walk. Her fingers were also contorted.

Concerned, Teresa DeLima, Rose’s daughter, petitioned the E.P.A. in Sept. 2011. She wanted to know if the black dust in their house and in their neighborhood was also high in selenium. A year later, the E.P.A. conducted sample testing claims its report should be ready in the spring of this year, though they won’t be more specific than that.

So we wait. Meanwhile, I’m still digging into and compiling stories, reminding myself that this is what journalism is for: lifting the proverbial veil on the hunt for the truth.

The good news is that the citizens across the nation are beginning to engage. They’re sending me information they’ve collected on their own, writing up their coal ash stories, making their own videos. In other words, in a time when environmental news coverage is fading from newsstands, citizens are becoming their own media — and thankfully so, because there are so many coal ash stories out there that there is no way I can collect them all on my own.

Speaking of, if you have a coal ash story to share, please do so at CoalAshChronicles.com.

Rhiannon Fionn-Bowman is an Award-winning independent environmental journalist based in Charlotte, N.C, USA.

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