EPA data reveals more dangerous coal ash ponds

October 31, 2011 by Ken Ward Jr.

Here’s the latest on coal-ash ponds from Earthjustice:

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s latest release of data concerning coal ash ponds reveals a threefold increase in the number of significant-hazard rated coal ash ponds. This nightmare scenario comes as legislation passed by the House of Representatives and introduced in the Senate proposes to completely castrate the EPA’s ability to set federally enforceable safeguards for proper coal ash disposal.

“Coal ash ponds are threatening hundreds of communities and their drinking water supplies, but the current approach in Congress is to ignore the problem and hope it goes away,” said Earthjustice attorney Lisa Evans.

The EPA is rating coal ash ponds according to a National Inventory of Dams (NID) criteria that categorizes the ponds by the damage that would occur if the pond collapses. Coal ash ponds are usually earthen structures holding back millions of tons of toxic coal ash and water. This month, the EPA recently released a new set of data that reveals 181 “significant” hazard dams in 18 states. This is more than three times the 60 significant-hazard ponds listed in the original database released in 2009. In addition to the increase in the number of significant hazard-rated ponds, eight of the previously unrated coal ash ponds were found to be high hazard ponds in information released by the EPA earlier this year. Because of the switch in ratings after the EPA inspections, the total number of high hazard ponds has stayed roughly the same at a total of 47 ponds nationwide.

Because coal ash ponds are not federally regulated and are largely unregulated by states, there is usually no requirement to classify the ponds, no matter how large they are. After the catastrophic collapse of the TVA Kingston Fossil Plant’s coal ash pond in December 2008, the EPA requested information from all coal ash pond owners through the issuance of an information request letter in March 2009. The Tennessee pond collapse released over a billion gallons of toxic sludge, which flooded 300 acres, destroyed and damaged dozens of homes, and left TVA with a cleanup cost of over $1 billion.

The initial response to the EPA in 2009 from utilities owning coal ash ponds revealed that hundreds of coal ash ponds were “not rated” according to the NID criteria. Some of the ponds without ratings were even larger than the six-story pond that failed in Tennessee. Consequently, since 2009, the EPA has been requesting additional information from owners and conducting inspections of the largest of the nation’s 676 coal ash ponds.

According to the NID criteria, “high” hazard coal ash ponds are categorized as such because their failure will likely cause loss of human life. “Significant” hazard dams “can cause economic loss, environment damage, disruption of lifeline facilities, or impact other concerns.” “Low” hazard dams are those where failure or mis-operation results in no probable loss of human life and low economic and/or environmental losses that are principally limited to the owner’s property.

Six states that gained high hazard ponds include:

– Kentucky: Mill Creek Station, Louisville: 1 high hazard pond

– Ohio: Kyger Creek Station, Gallipolis: 2 high hazard ponds

– Indiana: Eagle Valley Generating Station, Indianapolis: 1 high hazard pond;

Harding Street Power Station, Indianapolis: 2 high hazard ponds

R. M. Schahfer Power Station, Wheatfield: 2 high hazard ponds

– Missouri: Sikeston Power Station, Sikeston: 1 high hazard pond

– Pennsylvania: WPS Energy Services, Shamokin Dam: 1 high hazard pond

– Alabama: Ernest Gaston Electric Generations Plant, Wilsonville: 1 high hazard pond


Eight of these 11 newly characterized high-hazard ponds (almost three quarters of those inspected) received a “poor” inspection rating from EPA after their discovery and inspection.

Eighteen states gained significant hazard ponds: AL, GA, IL, IN, LA, KS, KY, MI, MO, MS, MT, NC, ND, OH, SC, VA, WI, and WY. Forty-two of the 112 newly identified significant hazard ponds (about one third) received a poor rating after inspection by the EPA.

The sharp increase in coal ash ponds likely to cause significant damage if they should fail should give the Senate pause as they consider S.1751, a bill that will allow coal ash ponds to operate indefinitely without adequate safeguards. The bill does not require coal ash pond phase out, nor does it require ponds to comply with basic safety requirements established in 1978 by Mine Health and Safety Administration (MHSA) after the deadly collapse of the Buffalo Creek coal slurry impoundment, which killed over a hundred people in WV in 1972. The Senate bill does not even mandate the most basic engineering standard for pond safety—the maintenance and design of ponds for the maximum amount of toxic cargo they will hold. In fact the bill explicitly allows coal ash ponds to contain more toxic sludge than they were designed to contain.

“The current agenda in Congress is to attack public health protections on behalf of dirty industries with a long history of failing to clean up their mess,” Evans added. “For every day this House has been in session, there has been a vote to curtail EPA protections. That is absolutely unconscionable. Too many Americans live near toxic coal ash dumps and unless federal action is taken soon, another TVA disaster is just waiting to happen. We shouldn’t have to wait for more destruction or loss of life to act.”

6 Responses to “EPA data reveals more dangerous coal ash ponds”

  1. Dam Safety Guy says:

    The National Inventory of Dams and every other agency that deals dam safety uses a classification system of hazard potential, which is the consequences IF the dam failed, that risk analysis has nothing to do with state of the impounding structure. So the full description of the ash dams you are referring to are significant hazard potential dams, and high hazard potential dams.

  2. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    Dam Safety Guy,

    You should read the Earthjustice press release more carefully — especially this part:

    “The EPA is rating coal ash ponds according to a National Inventory of Dams (NID) criteria that categorizes the ponds by the damage that would occur if the pond collapses.”

    I believe that’s exactly what you said.

    However, had you also bothered to click through the links in the post, you would have gone to this EPA site, http://www.epa.gov/osw/nonhaz/industrial/special/fossil/surveys2/index.htm … which describes the findings of EPA contract evaluations of the actual dam conditions — of the 46 sites reviewed so far and made public, those contractors found 21 to be in poor condition.


  3. Inspector says:

    What the report does not say is that the EPA’s contractors – who evaluated things differently – when they performed these inspections they made a default assumption to a poor rating when there was an absence of information instead of calling it inconclusive as they should have done when some information to make a final conclusion is lacking. Consequently, this approach creates a false conclusion and bias in the final report.

  4. Inspector says:

    Note this comment from the EPA website:


    “Impoundment ratings noted in the reports should be taken in the proper context, since a unit may be found to be structurally sound while it may receive a fair or poor rating based on other factors such as lack of information.

    This default rating to poor is not standard for scientific analysis on the basis of lack of information alone and reflects an intended bias that those overseeing the study chose to do. They should have simply stated inconclusive, pending information. Or, acceptable, pending further information. Or some other rating system. That would be like saying that all schools are presumed to be poor in the absence of test data. It’s just wrong and inaccurate way of doing things.

  5. Ken Ward Jr. says:


    I’m not sure of your analogy there, but thanks for your comment.

    How many of the specific contractor reports have you read, and how many of those came up with a “poor” rating on the basis you mention?

    If states are doing such a great job of regulating these things, wouldn’t adequate information be available for contractors to make scientifically sound conclusions?


  6. Inspector says:

    State inspectors accompanied EPA staff and contractors on many of these inspections. In the experience of at least one state, essentially all of the structures identified as “poor” were due to incomplete information, not due to actual structural integrity concerns. Geotechnical and hydrologic information were the two primary requests, with geotech seemingly the most important to the contractors. Though not currently required, particularly for incised structures, EPA wants to see studies done on each structure regardless. Perhaps the most concerning aspect of the whole effort was that the various contractors approached the same inspections in different ways with different criteria and interpretations of the data. Suffice it to say that the final report is not a consistent evaluation of each structure.

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