Every year, coal-fired power plants in the United States produce over 100 million tons of ash laced with toxic heavy metals, much of which is mixed with water and stored in unlined pits nearby. These ponds, like the plants that fill them, are often located next to waterbodies like rivers or lakes. Environmentalists and public-health officials have long raised concerns that harmful chemicals could leach into groundwater or overflow into rivers and streams during heavy rains and contaminate drinking water sources. A new report out Monday finds that there's merit to these concerns: At least 36 coal ash ponds are located in flood zones.
The report's findings were released on the final day of the comment period for a new Environmental Protection Agency rule rolling back Obama-era regulations of coal ash disposal. In 2015, following several high-profile coal ash leaks, including a 2008 spill in which a dike broke at the Kingston Fossil Plant in Tennessee and 1.1 billion gallons of ash poured into the Emory River, the Obama administration proposed new standards for coal ash ponds that included more monitoring and inspections and stricter lining requirements.