Investigating coal ash sites near you
Updated 9:44 PM ET, Tue December 7, 2021
(CNN)On Sunday, CNN published "Gambling 'America's Amazon,'" an investigation on a toxic coal ash pond in southern Alabama that experts say threatens one of the nation's most pristine wetlands.
Alabama Power, the state's largest utility, owns the waste site, which lacks a liner to contain the ash and is contaminating groundwater.
Federal regulations have required Alabama Power to close the pond, which it plans to do by sealing the coal ash in place. Environmental groups have called on the utility to dig it up and move it to a safer site.
The problem is not unique to Alabama. Coal ash is one of the largest types of industrial waste in the United States, and hundreds of coal ash ponds dot the country, according to data that federal regulations require pond operators to publish and was compiled by Earthjustice, a nonprofit that handles environmental lawsuits. Following changes in federal regulations, many utilities are wrestling with what to do with massive amounts of the material that have accumulated over decades.
What is coal ash?
Coal ash is an umbrella term for the residue that's left over when utilities burn coal. It contains metals — such as lead, mercury, chromium, selenium, cadmium and arsenic — that never biodegrade. Studies have shown these contaminants are dangerous to humans and have linked some to cancer, lung disease and birth defects.
There are several types of coal ash, including fly ash, which is fine and powdery, bottom ash which is heavy and coarse, and boiler slag, which is melted bottom ash. There's also flue gas desulfurization gypsum, also known as FGD gypsum, which is left over when utilities use scrubbers to reduce emissions during the coal burning process.
The coal ash recycling industry is significant. According to the American Coal Ash Association, utilities produced 78.6 million tons of coal ash in 2019. More than half was turned into other materials such as cement, grout and wallboard.
What is a coal ash pond?
Before the 1970s, many utilities pumped their coal waste into the atmosphere, said attorney Lisa Evans, who has focused on coal ash litigation for more than 20 years and works for Earthjustice.
After Congress passed the Clean Air Act of 1970, which regulated power plants' air emissions, some facilities began storing much of their coal ash in dirt ditches, commonly known today as ash ponds or surface impoundments.
Some of them are large. The one CNN examined in Alabama spans 597 acres and is nearly the size of the National Mall.