Alabama Power, the state’s largest utility, owns the waste site, which has no liner to contain the ash and contaminates groundwater.
Federal regulations have required Alabama Power to shut down the pond, which it plans to do by sealing the coal ash in place. Environmental groups have asked the utility to dig it up and move it to a safer site.
Coal ash is an umbrella term for the residue that remains when utilities burn coal. It contains metals – such as lead, mercury, chromium, selenium, cadmium, and arsenic – that never biodegrade. Studies have shown that these contaminants are dangerous to humans and have linked some to cancer, lung disease and birth defects.
What is a coal ash basin?
Before the 1970s, many utilities pumped their waste coal into the atmosphere, said lawyer Lisa Evans, who has focused on coal ash litigation for more than 20 years and works for Earthjustice.
Some of them are great. The only CNN reviewed in Alabama spans 597 acres and is almost the size of the National Mall.
Why is it a problem?
There are approximately 511 coal ash ponds in the United States, according to a CNN analysis of data compiled by Earthjustice.
Coal-fired power plants generate electricity by burning coal to heat water, which becomes steam and passes through a turbine to generate electricity. For this reason, many coal-fired power stations have been built near river systems.
Environmentalists often raise two major concerns about coal ash ponds: They can contaminate groundwater, and infrastructure could fail and trigger a catastrophic spill.
Earthjustice data shows that, like the Alabama Pond in the CNN survey, nearly half – about 46% – of known ponds are unpaved and have been or will be closed in place.
Conservationists say that in-place capping, the plan Alabama Power has chosen, is not always an effective option for coal ash ponds where the coal ash is below the water table, the point in below which the floor is saturated with water, as the ceiling does not prevent contaminants from seeping into the surrounding area.
In the United States, 40 or fewer ponds have a protective coating to contain the ash, and more than 200 have been shown to contaminate groundwater with toxic substances at levels exceeding federal safety standards, according to data from Earthjustice.
Humans can be exposed to leachate from coal ash ponds primarily through drinking water, particularly through private water wells which may not be monitored like public systems are, or by consuming fish that have been affected. (In written responses to CNN, an Alabama Power spokesperson said the pond featured in CNN’s investigation had no impact on any source of drinking water.)
After the Kingston disaster, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) examined the condition of dams in more than 500 coal ash ponds across the United States. And in 2015, the agency implemented its first-ever regulations on coal ash disposal.
How do I know if there is a coal ash pool near my home?
The map at the top of this page can tell you if there is a coal waste site near you.
Federal regulations require utilities to post information about their coal ash ponds on their websites. If you go to your local utility’s website, you should be able to find information about a pond, including its location, size, and whether it is contaminating groundwater.
How do I know if a coal ash pond near my home is contaminating groundwater?
The CCR rule requires utilities to publish the results of their groundwater monitoring on their websites on an annual basis.
What about a spill? How do I know if my nearby coal ash pond is in danger?
I am concerned about the plan of my nearby coal ash basin. What can I do?