EarthJustice warns of potential dangers at coal ash disposal sites in Florida

06/05/12 Seán Kinane
WMNF Drive-Time News Tuesday | Listen to this entire show:

Most electricity produced in Florida comes from burning coal. In addition to the carbon dioxide and particulate air pollution one byproduct is what’s called coal ash. Often it’s stored in landfills or disposal ponds. But the environmental and legal organization EarthJustice has documented seven cases of coal ash contamination of water in Florida. Lisa Evans is senior legislative counsel at EarthJustice and spoke about toxins in coal ash; a major accident in Tennessee and coal ash stored at the Big Bend Power Station in Hillsborough County.

“Coal ash is the waste that’s felt over after burning coal. So across the country we’ve got hundreds of plants burning about 1 billion tons of coal a year and that produces about 140 million tons of coal ash. Coal ash consists of a few different wastes but very simply it’s the concentrated waste from coal. The reason that we’re concerned with coal ash is that it contains all the natural impurities and metals that are in coal, again concentrated. This would include many heavy metals which are arsenic, mercury, lead, cadmium, chromium, and many more.”

Coal ash came to the media attention in 2008 in an event that happened in Tennessee. Remind our listeners what happened there and why it was a big deal.

“Yes, that was a tragedy. What happened at the Tennessee Kingston plant in 2008 was that a retaining wall collapsed of a huge coal ash pond and that plant as well as many coal ash plants across the country, the coal ash is put in these large ponds holding millions of tons of toxic sludge. In December of 2008 the wall collapsed and released over 1 billion gallons of coal ash which flowed across rivers, across residential areas, covering 300 acres and destroyed a river front community.”

Are there medical problems associated with the toxins in these coal ash ponds?

“Absolutely, the coal ash contains some of the most toxic chemicals known to man including arsenic, mercury, lead, and chromium. When coal ash is put in water these chemicals are released into the water so it can contaminate drinking water, if coal ash is allowed to leak into those sources. Also when coal ash is allowed to leak into streams and lakes it can also poison fish because it contains selenium which is poisonous at small quantities to fish and other aquatic life.”

We’re speaking with Lisa Evans. She’s senior legislative council at EarthJustice. Lisa, your group EarthJustice put out a study that listed, in all the states where you can find the information, where the coal ash disposal units are and I counted eight in the Tampa bay region. There’s one in particular I wanted to ask you about, the Big Bend Power Station that’s operated by Tampa Electric Company in Hillsborough County. What do you know about that disposal site?

“We looked at that site and in all of Florida there are actually six sights that have documented contamination to ground water and surface water. At the Big Bend site there were many contaminants which were much above health standards and environmental standards that were found in the ground water flowing out to the intertidal canals and onto adjacent properties. What caused that was that the ponds and the landfills where the coal ash was dumped were not properly lined and thus contained the chemicals in the ash and didn’t prevent them from flowing out into the ground water.”

There are eight ponds listed at the Big Bend Power Station, is it just a factor of them being smaller than normal that the most ponds are at Big Bend? Or is there a lot of coal ash stored there compared to others?

“It’s both; it’s a big plant so they have to have different receptacles for the waste. There are different ways that utilities will manage their waste. Some will create one huge pond, and depending on the topography of the sight others will contain multiple units. Either way, the basic principle is you've got to keep the wasted dry and you've got to keep it contained. You know in a land fill much like the landfills that we put our household garbage in, that’s what we need for coal ash, not to be in these unlined ponds. Especially when you've got shallow ground water as you do in Florida or the ability to flow out to sensitive areas like Tampa Bay.”

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