HAROLD, Ky. You won’t see any indications of the scarring in the hills beyond Tracy Neeces Mountain on the two-lane, winding road to Tracy Neeces Mountain.
The road turns from blacktop to gravel, and green forests cover steep slopes. The creek runs alongside modest homes that are nestled in the bottomlands. It has gardens that grow corn, zucchini and other vegetables under the scorching summer sun.
The first sign above of the devastation is a glimpse at a treeless mesa.
Neece drives his Ford F-150 pickup truck over an abandoned security booth and into a barren area. The forest has been replaced with grasses. Dynamite has blasted away entire mountain sides and tops.
Neece stops about 1,000 feet high above the hollow to take a look at what remains of his mountain. It is the site where a coal mining firm walked away leaving exposed cliffs.
Neece purchased the mountain as an investment in coal in 2012. This was just before the bottom fell out in the Eastern Kentucky coal sector in 2015. Nearly two miles of unstable rock-faced, cliffs remained from his tenant, which Neece estimates is as high as 250 feet.
Mining companies are required to repair the damage they have caused by law. This is known as contemporaneous reclamation. Slopes must be stabilized and returned back to their original contour. Rainfall must be managed. Grass or trees must also be planted.
None of these things happened.
Neece stated that the property is unsafe and basically worthless because he doesn’t know when or how it will be reclaimed.
They never did anything, Neece complained bitterly about the bankrupt coal companies who cut off his mountain’s sides. It can’t be used for nothing.
His experience is emblematic for the environmental devastation that coals have caused in the United States.
Emily Bernhardt, an environmental scientist at Duke University, said that the damage would last for millennia. Pat McGinley from West Virginia University is a law professor who said that there are coal areas in West Virginia where everything has been contaminated and the environments are destroyed. There is no responsibility for these conditions and no consequences.
The damage is extensive:
- Underground mine fires are common in Pennsylvania. Iron-laden, acidic water from abandoned mine shafts flows into rivers and into the rivers.
- New Hampshire’s iconic sugar maple is at risk from soil damage due to acid rain from coal-induced.
- A young mother in Florida obsesses about water and air pollution caused by a large pile of coal ash kept by her local utility.
- Kentucky’s multi-billion dollar cost to reclaim abandoned mines like Neeces outweighs the surety bonds left behind in increasing numbers of bankrupt coking companies.
Appalachia has seen more than 2,300 square mile of Appalachia destroyed by mountaintop removal and other forms surface mining.
Over a million acres of land are used by mines. These areas must be cleaned up and reclaimed. This is a task President Biden’s $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill cannot begin to address.
Eric Dixon, a researcher who studied abandoned mine lands across the country, stated that this problem is massive.
Coal is the most polluting fossil fuel, and has contributed more than oil or gas to global warming. One estimate is that 46 percent of all manmade greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere by 1750 are coal-based. This has caused seas to rise that threaten major cities and supercharge hurricanes.
The world has responded slowly but surely.
The amount of U.S. electricity produced from coal fell It has fallen from 50 percent to 20% since 2005, but it is expected that it will rise to 23 per cent this year. The European Union is moving away from coal even faster. At the United Nations climate talks in Glasgow last month, 40 countries said that they would phase out coal use.
China and India, two-thirds of the world’s coal users, have not made that promise, as did Australia and the United States, which are major exporters. Xi Jinping, the Chinese President, stated in September that China would cease building coal plants abroad. However, the nation continues to build its coal plants domestically and gets most of its electricity from it.
In fact, China’s coal-based greenhouse gas emissions are greater than those of the United States.
Antnio Guterres, U.N. Secretary General, stated that “accelerating the global phaseout coal is the single greatest step towards meeting the Paris Agreements goal to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius.”
An international coalition of lawyers and environmentalists has launched a campaign to make long-term, systemic environmental destruction like coal extraction an international crime. It is being referred to as ecocide by the International Criminal Court.
The future of the campaigns is uncertain. Even if ecocide was to become an international crime in five to six years, it would still be legal in the United States. The U.S. is not one of the 123 member countries that the courts consider to be a court. Since its inception, coal mining has been allowed and encouraged by the U.S. government.
The campaign’s supporters and many U.S. environmentalists argue that ecocide, along with the broad concept of crimes versus nature, provide a new moral framework for seeing widespread environmental damage in the United States as an affront against humanity.
The definition was drawn up by a panel made up of legal scholars and lawyers. It is reminiscent of the devastation caused in part by coal mining. Widespread environmental damage, according to the lawyers, is damage that extends beyond a restricted geographic area, crosses state lines, or is suffered or all of a species or an entire ecosystem.
They defined long-term harm as damage that is irreversible or cannot be repaired by natural recovery within a reasonable time.
Bernhardt, a biogeochemist and ecosystem ecologist who has studied Appalachian strip mining and worked to understand the long-term effects of coal for nearly 20 years, stated that blowing off the tops of mountains fundamentally alters the planet.
She said that we have changed the slope distribution in an entire ecoregion. It is now in a completely different shape than before. Water moves differently through it, and when it does it picks up pollutants which could seep out for years, if not decades.
She said that there are still coal mines from Roman Empire that emit acid pollution.
Kentucky has a law that requires that a portion of a mountain be removed
Tracy Neece leased the land in eastern Kentucky to mine in 1930s. It was originally purchased by his grandfather. It is surrounded with other strip mines.
Neece said that his decision at the time to lease his mountain seemed good. He is not against strip mining, provided that it is done in compliance with the law and with proper reclamation.
He said that mining has provided food for many families and a lot of work. Surface mining can also make more land available for hunting and other purposes. He stated that he wanted to build flat ground on his property in order to house sites. You could also run cattle there.
Sen. Manchin, a Democrat who has family ties to coal, is one of the staunchest defenders for coal mining. He often repeats a familiar refrain.
Manchin said that American coal miners form the backbone of America at a National Press Club appearance held in April. Our coal miners have been mining the coal that has produced the steel that made the tanks and ships. They are the backbone of our nation, and we know they are the ones that make our country the strongest in the globe.
Manchin has also almost single-handedly blocked much of President Bidens climate agenda in Congress this yearin an effort to give coal a lifeline in a carbon-constrained world by pressing for costly and unproven carbon capture technologies.
But West Virginia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and all the other coal states have paid a high health and environmental price for the nations economic growth, and the costs are still piling up.
In hindsight, Neece said he wishes he had never signed a lease with James River Coal, and that Revelation, the bankrupt Blackjewel company that left the property in its current condition, had never taken over the James River lease after James Riverwent bankrupt.
As it is, trespassers on all-terrain vehicles could now unknowingly drive off the top, Neece fears. Rocks could fall on homes down below. Rain could cause landslides.
They knew what they were doing, Neece said of Revelation. They just wanted to make a million dollars, you know, take everything they could and go. They had no intention of putting it back.
He said he also feels let down by Kentucky state mining regulators, who allowed the mining to occur without contemporaneous reclamation.
Records show Kentucky issued multiple notices of violations between 2016 and 2019 for mining regulations, including failing to reclaim10,000 feet of highwall left behind the miners.
The company also was cited for failing to maintain proper drainage to control sediment runoff and properly manage waste rock, called mine spoils, blasted from the hillside.
It is clear from what I have seen, looking at the enforcement records that go back to 2016, there was a huge problem on this permit, said Mary Varson Cromer, deputy director of the Appalachian Citizens Law Center in nearby Whitesburg, Kentucky.
From 2016 to the companys bankruptcy in 2019, the state did very little to enforce its regulations beyond issuing violation notices, she said.
Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet spokesman John Mura said in a written statement the state was working to resolve the problems at the mine, which it considers a high reclamation priority.
In Kentucky, the state funds reclamation of bankrupt mines like the one on Neeces property through bonds purchased by mining companies, or a shared risk bond pool funded by fees on the industry if the mining company bonds fall short. But the worst may now be happening.
Overall, Kentuckys reclamation liability ranges from $1.9 billion to $2.4 billion compared with company bonds of about $888 million, according to a July report by Appalachian Voices, an environmental group. Similar deficits existin other coal states.
On Neeces property alone, the state estimated the cost of reclamation of more than 300 acres to be $10 million, according to records filed in bankruptcy court. Yet the state only required about $1.7 million in reclamation bonds.
I think we all know, we are in a position here where we are upside down and we got probably more problems than we got money, Commissioner Charles Rusty Justice said at a March meeting of the states Kentucky Reclamation Guaranty Fund Commission.
In Pennsylvania, coal minings long run
A similar state of underfunded despair exists in northeast Pennsylvanias Wyoming Valley, about 125 miles northwest of New York City, where coal mining fueled the industrial revolution in Boston, New York and Philadelphia.
The big mines have been gone for decades. But the industry left behind massive problems.
- A 55-acre pile of toxic coal waste in Swoyersville.
- Millions of gallons of iron-laden, acidic water pouring out of the Old Forge Borehole near Scranton.
- A 15-acre underground mine fire near Olyphant thats burned longer than many kids in town have been alive.
- And across the region, the ever-present risk of the collapsing underground mine timbers and the deadly surface cave-ins they can cause.
Congress passed the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act in 1977 to address many of these problems. It established federal regulations for surface mining, required mine reclamation and set forth bonding requirements to make sure reclamation occurs if companies go bankrupt.
It also established the Abandoned Mine Land fund to address environmental damage from mines abandoned before 1977.
Since then, some 978,000 acres and $7.9 billion worth of damage from mines left behind before 1977 have been cleaned up nationally, according to an April report from the Ohio River Valley Institute.
But another 850,000 acres of abandoned mine lands remain, and cleaning them up will cost another $18.3 billion to $24.4 billion more than twice the official estimate from the federal government.
Those costs are likely to grow to as much as $33.6 billion by 2050.
The vast majority of mines abandoned before 1977 are in Alabama, Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia.
Pennsylvania has already spent $1.26 billion in grant funds since 1980 to reclaim thousands of abandoned coal mines, including eliminating more than 270 miles of dangerous high walls left behind by surface mining, according to state officials.
Pennsylvania tops the seven states with an estimated $8.5 billion in unmet reclamation needs, according to the Ohio River Valley Institutes analysis of the federal government’s abandoned mine land inventory.
West Virginia has $5 billion in needs; Kentucky, $1.2 billion.
Whether or when these problems can be addressed largely depends on Congress. The main source of funding to address pre-1977 abandoned mine lands is a fund supported by coal-mining fees.
The bipartisan infrastructure bill President Biden signed in November reauthorized the mine fund, even while reducing the assessment on coal mining companies. It also directed $11 billion to assist in reclamation projects over the next 15 years enough to take a bite out of the problem, but not solve it.
Still, Pennsylvania is now looking to get an extra $250 million a year an unprecedented amount, compared with the $56 million a year it has been getting for the last five years, said Brian Bradley, director of the Bureau of Abandoned Mine Reclamation in Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection.
In Swoyersville, ahistoric mining community of about 5,000 just north of Wilkes-Barre, a massive pile of coal waste stands as tall as a 17-story building, surrounded on three sides by homes.
The dusty black material, enough to fill 26,000 rail cars, is left over from decades of coal mining by residents on the west side of the Susquehanna River.
Winds send ash into nearby backyards. Rain falling on the pile pollutes local waterways and groundwater. Trespassers on all-terrain vehicles risk injuries. The pile is also a fire hazard.
Theres a plan to eliminate the pile in 10 to 20 years, but it depends on securing long-term financing from the abandoned mine fund or subsidies from the U.S. treasury.
The boroughs two-term mayor, Christopher Concert, said the pile is just not that big of a deal to many of his constituents. He recalls visiting relatives in Swoyersville in the winter as a child, 40 years ago, and sliding down the piles snow-covered banks.
That said, Concert called the coal mining waste, known locally as culm, disgusting.
We need it hauled away, he said. I am praying that our state representatives, our congressmen, our senators, make more money available to make sure that that gets done.
The Old Forge Borehole
The Old Forge Borehole is half an hours drive north from Swoyersville. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers drilled the hole, 42-inches-wide and 170-feet-deep, in 1961, so water threatening peoples basements could drain out of abandoned underground mines.
For more than 60 years now, from an outlet near Scranton, theres been an uncontrolled release of polluted mine water into the Lackawanna River just upstream from where it flows into the Susquehanna River.
At this one location, anyway, acid levels have finally declined to near normal, state officials said on a recent visit, but the outlet is still dumping thousands of pounds of iron into the river daily.
In dry weather, the mine water is traffic-cone orange and, along with water from another mine outlet nearby, discolors the Lackawanna and Susquehanna rivers for three miles. The river bottom and shoreline rocks along its path are blanketed in a coating of iron, wrecking habitat for fish and other aquatic life.
Officials are talking with private business interests to see whether there could be a commercial market for the iron, or even the potential for hydropower generation, said Bernie McGurl, executive director of the Lackawanna River Corridor Association.
Otherwise, he said, it could take a thousand or even two thousand years for nature to clean up the mine water. Being an entrepreneur in the Wyoming Valley, he said, means making money off the destruction left by coal.
A half-hour north, near the town of Olyphant, a 15-acre fire in an underground coal mine vents a rotten egg smell through crevices and pipes. It has been burning for 17 years.
After spending more than $25 million to containthe fire, state officials think they can extinguish the inferno by next year. Its one of more than three-dozen mine fires the state had identified, as of last year.
Nationally, at least 7,000 acres of mine fires are burning, with an estimated cost of more than $1 billion to remediate.
This one, called the Dolph Mine Fire, started with burning trash on top of a culm pile, like the one in Swoyersville. The fire fell through to the mine belowand has been burning ever since.
By 2008, the U.S. Office of Surface Mining and Reclamation had dug a 3,400-foot-long, 150-foot-deep trench to isolate the fire. Now, on a 75-acre footprint, contractors have constructed ponds and are filling them with water.
Their plan is to use surface mining techniques, including blasting and digging, to extinguish the fire by dousing it with water and foam. When exposed to the open air, it could burn up to 1,400 degrees. Their completion date: January 2023.
Its tricky work, Bradley said. The contractor will be drilling into the culm pile and rock that overlays the old mine, putting explosives in holes to break up the rock and get down to the burning coal. The closer they get to the areas that have been burning, the hotter the rock will be and the more dangerous the work will be for the contractor.
So one challenge is always just dealing with explosives in holes that are already hot, he said. They meet that challenge by cooling the rock before blasting.
The fire that started at the Dolph Mine is just the sort of worst-case situation that worries Henry Zielinski, vice president of generation and reclamation for the Northampton Generating Co., the parent company that is overseeing reclamation at the Swoyersville coal waste pile.
There is the potential that if this did catch on fire that you are not putting it out, Zielinski said. Maybe you are going to isolate it and let it burn.
Long-term questions about the viability of the cleanup which depends on more government funding and burning the coal waste to produce electricity in marginally competitive plants remain among skeptical residents.
They said it would take 20 years to clean up, said Bill Smith, who lives a couple of blocks away from the pile and was outside on a sunny fall day, fixing his clothesline. While he said he is not bothered by the pile because its always been here, he also expects it to be around for a lot longer.
Guess what, it will take more than 20 years, he said.
In New Hampshire, acid rain and recovery
Charles Driscoll hikes up a leaf-strewn path in the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest in Woodstock, New Hampshire, where the recovery could take a century, or more. Its a chilly, sunny October morning, with loon calls reverberating from nearby Mirror Lake.
Nearly all the sugar maple leaves have fallen to the ground, along with many from beech trees, creating a golden mat with splashes of red that feels soft underfoot.
Driscoll runs Syracuse Universitys Center for Environmental Systems Engineering and is a co-author of hundreds of scientific papers, many of them based at Hubbard Brook, one of the most studied forests in the world.
Hubbard Brook is where the pioneering ecologist Gene Likens in the 1960s co-discovered acid rain in North America and later, in 1974, co-identified fossil fuel combustion as its cause.
It was also here where Likens, Driscoll and others revealed how acid rain from burning coal had stripped away soil nutrients that are vital to the regions most iconic tree species the sugar maple with its brilliant yellow, orange and red leaves in the fall and syrup production in the spring.
When coal and other fossil fuels are burned, the emissions include sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides and can reach the ground as wet or dry depositions. They mix with water, oxygen and other chemicals to form sulfuric and nitric acid, and they can alter rain, fog or hail.
They can also land as particles and acidify water and soil that way.
Acid rain was a key target of the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, signed by President George H.W. Bush. The law dramatically lowered emissions of sulfur dioxide from coal-burning power plants that had done so much damage to lakes and forests in the Eastern United States.
Other provisions required pollution controls for nitrogen oxides.
Acid levels in rain and lakes have come down and fish populations that had been wiped out in some lakes have started to return. Curbing acid rain is considered a major bipartisan environmental accomplishment.
Sulfur deposition has decreased about 80 percent and acid rain has decreased about 80 percent, Likens said in a Zoom interview. So it is much, much improved, and that is a big success story.
But both Driscoll and Likens say damaged soils and their lingering effects on sugar maples have a long journey to recovery, and may not make it. These soils are the product of thousands of years of weathering. Recovery, Likens says, could take decades, maybe centuries.
Driscoll turns off the forest path and heads deeper into the woods, side-stepping fallen tree trunks and coming to a small opening where a cut in a hillside exposed a few feet of soil.
He scrapes at the soil, leaving a fresh cut, then kneels down to take a closer look and to poke at it with his finger.
In areas like the Adirondacks or like Hubbard Brook, the soils are derived from minerals that are very difficult to break down and they have very slow weathering rates, Driscoll explained.
The soils are naturally acidic. And so we think either based on historical measurements or based on model calculations, that acid rain has leached out a significant fraction, primarily calcium, but also magnesium. And so trees that need large amounts of those materials are challenged.
Like sugar maples, he says. The problem isnt only at Hubbard Brook but on landscapes with similar soils in other areas of the Northeast and as far away as Germany and China.
The damage to the maple forest and individual trees is significant.
The phenomenon is often referred to as sugar maple syndrome. Particularly with older, big sugar maples,one branch or a couple branches will turn color early in the fall before the rest of the tree does. Then some of the upper branches will die back.
Over maybe four or five, or six years, then the upper part of the tree dies back, and then ultimately, the tree will succumb, Likens said.
Its not only the older trees that are affected. Young seedlings cannot get established, which has prevented sugar maples from reproducing.
One of the reasons these scientists are so confident about their conclusions is from an experiment they conducted in part of the Hubbard Brook forest in the late 1990s, following up on a 1996 paper published in the journal Science, on the long-term effects of acid rain on a forest ecosystem.
Standing near a weir that was collecting and discharging water from a stream, with sensors to detect the flow and water chemistry, Driscoll explained what came next.
We got funding from the National Science Foundation, and so the plan was to add back the calcium that was lost from historical acid rain, and see how the ecosystem recovers. And so we did it. It was applied by helicopter.
In all, some 40 tons of slow-release calcium pellets were dropped over a 29-acre watershed in October 1999, and the experiment has been running ever since.
Results were soon obvious. The ferns and other plants growing on the ground became greener, a change first noticed by the late Yale University forest ecology professor Tom Siccama.
I thought he was crazy, Driscoll recalled, but a check of the plants internal chemistry revealed higher chlorophyll content.
The observations have continued.
We saw that the seedlings for sugar maple, which were not really very prominent throughout the forest, were very prominent here, in the watershed that had received the calcium,Driscoll said. So immediately, we saw a generation of sugar maple, which had been shut down for years, just spring back like magic.
He added, And the canopy trees, within a short period of time, they completely responded to it their growth greatly improved.
But thats only on a small research plot.
It would be too costly and impractical and probably politically unacceptable to spread calcium from helicopters over large swaths of the Eastern United States in areas where acid rain damaged the soils.
Climate change is another stressor for sugar maples, one that researchers across the region are watching closely. A 2018 report from the U.S. Forest Service, on New England and Northern New York forest vulnerabilities, found the quality of sugar maple habitat is projected to decline under a higher-end greenhouse gas scenario.
But its those soil deficiencies of calcium from acid rain, due in large part to burning coal, that could deliver the knock-out punch to sugar maples in forests like this one, with its poorer quality soils.
I think it’s going to occur over decades, Driscoll said of the sugar maple decline. You have these large canopy trees, they’re functioning, but they’re just not functioning very well. And regeneration has completely stopped.
So there’s no small maples to replace the canopy maples when they die out, he said. And the sugar maples are being displaced by American beech in the forest.
Eventually, as the climate continues to warm, oak trees may take over, leaving this particular forest but a memory.
In Florida, coal ash and scrubber sludge
Tucked among scattered pine and cypress trees in Orlando, Florida, a 175-foot-tall mountain of coal ash looms as a stark, physical representation of this booming region’s reliance on fossil fuels.
It sits beside two towering coal plants, their looming cylinder-shaped cooling towers sending curls of steam into the clouds from the most conspicuous part of the Orlando Utilities Commission’s (OUC) sprawling east Orlando, energy-generating complex known as Stanton Energy Center.
Piper Vargas is especially aware of the landfill. Vargas fears dust particles carried by the wind from the landfill six miles to the tidy blue lakeside home she shares with her husband, Oscar, and two sons: Max, 8, and Diego, 5.
She worries about what inhaling toxic particles might do to her family, especially her sons, and how it might affect groundwater, a vital freshwater resource in the area.
Coal ash and other combustion wastes are what remains after coal is burned for electricity, and it contains toxic contaminants such as mercury, cadmium and arsenic that can pollute the air and groundwater and are associated with cancer and other health ailments.
Vargas’ fears escalated into panic attacks, and she and her husband considered moving from their neighborhood, where the family enjoys working in their vegetable garden in the backyard and engaging in outdoor sports like soccer and tennis.
“My mind starts to go to those places like, ‘Why do we still live here?'” says Vargas, 38, a full-time mom who began homeschooling her kids just before the pandemic. “They’re not cleaning that up. Or they’re still burning (coal) right now. They still have years left of burning it.”
And, she wonders, what exactly happens to all that coal ash, and what they do with that toxic waste, she says.
Over the last century, as the U.S. increasingly relied on coal to power its economy, hundreds of power plants produced billions of tons of ash and other combustion wastes, including scrubber sludge.
The more air pollution utilities were required to scrub from their smokestack emissions to comply with clean-air rules, the more coal-burning wastes they made. As the controls kept pollutants out of the air, some became part of the ash, making it more toxic, including contaminants such as mercury, cadmium and arsenic, associated with cancer and other serious health effects.
All that coal-burning waste had to go somewhere.
Utilities dumped it into watery, unlined pits called coal-ash ponds, piled it office-tower-high in landfills, sent it to public works departments to spread on icy winter roads, used it as a dirt alternative at construction sites for embankment or structural fill and disposed of it at old coal mines.
For 28 years, OUC dumped much of its coal-burning waste into its main landfill, covering about 90 acres.
That dumping stopped on Aug. 28, 2015, just 52 days before the first national regulations on the management of coal-burning wastes went into effect. The maneuver exempted the landfill from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agencys rules for environmental monitoring and, if contamination were to be found, from a requirement to take corrective actions.
Those rules now only apply to a new, active cell next to the landfill that the utility uses and any future cells it fills with ash.
Regardless, said OUC spokesman Tim Trudell, the utility recognizes its responsibility with coal.
We will continue to monitor that site for as long as it takes, he said.
OUCs situation is not unique, according to environmental watchdogs. They say OUCs actions took advantage of a widely used loophole that was written into EPAs Coal Combustion Residuals Rule, passed in 2015 near the end of the Obama administration, after decades of battles among environmentalists, industry and the EPA during Democratic and Republican administrations.
EPA, by exempting many ash disposal sites that had ceased receiving coal-burning waste by the time the rule went into effect that year, may have exempted as much as half of all of such waste ever generated in the United States, from Florida to Alaska, environmental groups estimate.
Its not being monitored and therefore its not triggering corrective action requirements of the rule,” said Lisa Evans, a senior attorney specializing in hazardous waste law at Earthjustice, a national environmental law organization. “So you’re going to have this poisonous legacy, which could last permanently at many, many sites.
EPAs 2015 coal ash regulations were spurred by major disasters. One was near Knoxville on Dec. 22, 2008, when a levee that was holding a mountain of sodden ash suddenly broke loose from the Tennessee Valley Authoritys Kingston power plant.
Some 300 acres were smothered. The ash spilled into two rivers. Three homes were destroyed, dozens more were damaged. In the years since, hundreds of cleanup workers fell ill and many have died.
Then in 2014, tens of thousands of tons of coal ash spilled from a Duke Energy power plant into the Dan River at Eden, North Carolina, affecting 70 miles of the watershed downstream.
For decades, EPA had exempted coal ash from its hazardous waste definition, a result of a 1980 amendment added by the late U.S. Rep. Tom Bevill, D-Alabama, to the nations main law for regulating hazardous and solid waste. Bevill was a 15-term congressman known as the King of Pork for his ability to return federal dollars to his home state. He was also known for delivering for the fossil fuel industry.
In his Congressional testimony at the time, Bevill said the intent of his amendment was to curb pending EPA rules on fossil fuel wastes to protect the coal and electric utility industries from unnecessary burdens and high costs, and to encourage coal as a primary source of domestic energy. Fossil fuel wastes, Bevill argued to his Congressional colleagues, were not a substantial hazard to human health or the environment.
Thirty-five years later, despite having found dozens of examples across the country where coal ash had, or was likely to have, contaminated groundwater, polluted lakes or caused fish deformities, the EPA in 2015 sided with the coal and electric utilities industry, and again declined to deem coal-burning wastes as hazardous.
EPA officials concluded the way it planned to regulate coal ash as a solid waste a less rigorous category under the law would be enough to prevent ash pile collapses, blowing ash dust and groundwater contamination. The officials also said their preferred strategy would give utilities a practical approach to managing its massive collection of coal-burning wastes.
The EPA has so far all but left enforcement of its coal ash regulations up to citizens, or states, resulting in a hodgepodge of contradictory and confusing activity.
In some states, like North Carolina and South Carolina after the Southern Environmental Law Center sued, essentially all ash ponds are being drained and dug out, their toxic sludge sent to modern landfills with protective liners. SELC and its partners have won other victories for ash pond cleanups in Virginia and Tennessee.
In other states, its been a mixed bag, with utilities being allowed to merely drain and cover their ash ponds, a practice known as cap-in-place.
The only way this becomes a public controversy, said South Carolinas Frank Holleman, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, is either a local community group gets concerned and brings it to the attention of some environmental legal advocacy group, or the legal advocacy and environmental group learns about the problem and checks around and sees a local community that has a vague notion but isnt quite sure what’s going on. Or third, you have a catastrophe.
While the Trump administration, with its fossil-fuels agenda, was able to relax parts of the Obama-era rule, extending compliance deadlines and allowing utilities to request exemptions, other parts have remained, including requirements for utilities to monitor and report on groundwater conditions.
With all that monitoring, a better understanding of the scale of coal ash contamination across the country has emerged.
A 2019 report by the Environmental Integrity Project and other advocacy groups revealed polluted groundwater was even more widespread than previously known. They found unsafe levels of toxic contaminants linked to more than nine out of every 10 coal-fired power plants with monitoring data.
In all, unsafe levels of contamination were reported in groundwater at sites in 39 states and Puerto Rico.
Illinois has the most power plants with polluted ash storage sites with 16, followed by Texas, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, North Carolina and Missouri, all with more than 10.
Florida had nine power plants with polluted ash storage sites, including at the Stanton Energy Center, the report found.
Environmental advocates are looking to the Biden administration to deny utilities requests for cleanup exemptions made to the Trump administration, to start using new enforcement authority that Congress gave the EPA over coal combustion wastes in 2016 and require cleanup of contamination caused by ash dumping that occurred before that rule went into effect.
For its part, the Biden administration this year decided to retain the Trump administrations coal-ash rule revisions, saying that would be the most environmentally protective course, while promising to revisit coal-ash management in future rule-making.
An agency spokesperson also said the EPA is investigating compliance concerns and potential environmental risks as part of its relatively new enforcement authority over the coal combustion wastes.
Evans, the Earthjustice attorney, has urged the agency to take a broad approach and close the loopholes and gaps in its regulations, to prevent long-term risks.
These coal plant sites that operated for nearly a century in some cases buried toxic waste all over, Evans says. As these sites are retired, and in order to make sure this isnt a long toxic legacy, you have to deal with all the toxic sources.
Amy Green, a reporter with WMFE public radio, reported from Orlando.
InsideClimate News is a Pulitzer Prize-winning, non-profit, non-partisan news organization dedicated to covering climate change, energy and the environment.