The nonprofit environmental advocacy group Earthjustice is currently handling more than 600 active legal matters through its team of more than 130 full-time attorneys. Earthjustice works on behalf of hundreds of client organizations. These include the Sierra Club, the National Audubon Society, and numerous other national, state, and local environmental, public health, and public interest groups.
Among the most serious issues Earthjustice works to address is the problem of coal ash. The organization and its supporters are now celebrating a recent victory that could signal a turning point in the disposal of hazardous byproducts of the energy industry. Earthjustice contributed a dozen years of work on behalf of 11 client groups on a case in North Carolina with implications for the daily lives and health of people across the country.
Coal Ash Ponds to Be Closed throughout North Carolina
In April 2019, Earthjustice reported that, thanks to its team’s efforts, North Carolina authorities had ordered Duke Energy to clean out and close down every one of its coal ash ponds statewide. The ruling follows a similar one in Virginia. This shows that both states are now committing to dispose of coal ash in a safe way that will protect the health of the public and the environment.
Earthjustice termed the state Department of Environmental Quality’s decision “momentous.” North Carolina is among the top 10 producers of coal ash among the states. Current statistics show 43 states have a coal ash problem.
Coal Ash Is a Toxic Byproduct of Coal Combustion
Coal ash is the toxic residue that is expelled after the combustion of coal. Energy plants produce most of the coal ash that escapes into the atmosphere. Coal ash includes fly ash, the minute powder-like particles ejected out of smoke stacks and typically trapped by mechanisms designed to control pollution. It also includes the thicker particles that accumulate in the bottom of a coal-burning furnace.
Medical experts note that coal ash presents a serious danger to human and animal health. It can contain toxic heavy metals such as cadmium, mercury, lead, and arsenic. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, people living near coal ash waste sites are at increased risk of developing a host of diseases, including cancer.
Additionally, people living close to a surface-level, unlined wet ash pond may find their drinking water contaminated. As a result, they are at increased risk of developing cancer, as well as heart, lung, and kidney diseases and a range of neurological disorders. Children born to mothers living in these environments are at extra risk of birth defects and developmental delays as well as problems with bone growth.
Coal Ash Disposal Sites Pollute Nearby Air, Land, and Water
Coal ash particles from waste disposal sites can travel through the air as fine particulate matter. Erosion can also spread them throughout a region. And via a phenomenon known as leaching, they dissolve easily in water, traveling through entire networks of rivers, streams, ponds, aquifers, and wetlands.
For decades, utility companies have failed to implement procedures sufficient to mitigate the effects of coal ash disposal. Their neglect has brought the nation to a crucial tipping point.
Duke Energy has shown itself a particularly careless polluter. Time and time again, it has attempted to conceal coal ash contamination and disposal problems. Over the years, the company has incurred multiple criminal citations as a result of its failure to adhere to the requirements of the Clean Water Act. It has paid over $100 million in fines as a result.
The energy industry has for generations chosen the easiest and cheapest methods of disposing of its toxic by-products. Short of switching to cleaner forms of energy, the only solution in most cases is excavation and closure of the toxic coal ash dump sites.
Climate change makes matters worse. Natural disasters, such as recent super-storms resulting from climate change, exacerbate the problem. In 2018, Hurricane Florence flooded North and South Carolina, resulting in the leakage of enormous pits containing millions of tons of coal ash.
The North Carolina Case Has the Potential to Set a Nationwide Standard
Earthjustice points out that federal action on coal ash has historically proved inadequate. As a result, coal plant operators have not been held accountable for the pollution they produce.
Thanks to the organization’s work, cities and communities all over the United States now have their first set of environmentally-sound standards to help them properly dispose of coal ash. The North Carolina decision may serve as a model for other states, such as Illinois, which are currently facing the same problem.
Earthjustice Also Collaborates with Other Environmental Justice Organizations
Thanks in part to the Earthjustice team’s legal work, the EPA established the 2015 “Coal Ash Rule.” Among its provisions is the requirement that utility companies produce publicly available reporting of groundwater monitoring efforts.
Earthjustice then teamed up with the Environmental Integrity Project to analyze data from the sites of more than 250 American power plants. This Earthjustice-assisted project represented a first-of-its-kind data-gathering effort on the pervasiveness and hazards of coal ash pollution.
It demonstrated that contamination of the nation’s groundwater resources is severe and pervasive. The project found toxic levels of pollutants at more than 90 percent of the sites surveyed, including those in North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, and farther away in Texas, Wyoming, and other states.
For example, a family-owned ranch in Texas near the San Miguel Power Plant was shown to have a dozen or more pollutants—at more than 100 times levels experts deem safe—in its groundwater. The pollutants had leaked from nearby coal ash waste disposal sites. Swaths of the family’s land are filled with dead vegetation. The pollution identified by Earthjustice and the Environmental Integrity Project is in some locations so hazardous that regulations require the companies responsible to come up with immediate plans for its clean-up.
Taking the Fight to the Federal Level
Yet this success at the state level is hindered by active hostility to environmental regulation at the federal level. The Trump Administration proposes to modify the 2015 Coal Ash Rule, which requires companies to address the problem of coal combustion residuals (CCR). These revisions would also postpone required closure of hazardous coal ash ponds to the late summer of 2020.
Earthjustice, however, remains hopeful that state governments, following North Carolina’s example, can be persuaded to take up leadership on this issue, even if the federal government will not. And the organization will continue to defend the Coal Ash Rule in court against the current administration’s efforts to weaken it on behalf of industrial polluters.