Poison in the water

Coal ash: impacts on wildlife

Aerial view of December 2008 coal ash spill in Tennessee

America’s coal plants produce 130 million tons of waste every year from more than 450 coal plants across the country. Most of that waste sits in landfills and sludge ponds where it slowly seeps into our waterways, depositing toxic pollutants that can persist for a century or more. According to the EPA, coal waste can leach toxic pollutants like selenium, lead and arsenic at levels that wreak havoc on aquatic ecosystems and wildlife.

Toxic pollutants in coal waste affect the entire web of life in an ecosystem as they accumulate up the food chain. Trace amounts are taken up by plants and insects from the water, fish eat the insects and vegetation, and finally larger animals feed off those fish. These large predators—whether osprey, foxes or even humans—can consume concentrated doses of these toxins by eating contaminated fish, frogs or other species. Accumulated toxins like selenium have been shown to cause deformities, reproductive failure and even death in many aquatic species.

When the levies break

In December 2008, the residents of Harriman, Tennessee learned the dangers of coal ash first hand (read the full story here). When the wall of a nearby coal storage pond gave way, it unleashed 1.1 billion gallons of toxic coal ash into the environment that inundated homes in the surrounding area and poured into the Emory River. Independent testing showed seriously elevated levels of heavy metals in the water, and large numbers of fish were killed.

The rock fish is one of many important species affected by coal ash that leaks into our waterways.

Just last week a portion of a coal ash pond collapsed at a coal plant in North Carolina following a week of heavy rains (read story here). Though the spill was quickly contained, it demonstrates how often events like these take place. And that doesn’t account for the toxic metals that slowly leak into our waterways without our knowledge.

What Defenders is doing

Defenders has been pushing hard to protect our nation’s waterways from toxic coal ash that poisons aquatic ecosystems and makes our drinking water unsafe. Last month alone we:

When it comes to regulating coal ash, the EPA is currently considering two proposals. The stronger rules would treat coal ash as hazardous waste and set tight controls for its disposal, while the weaker rules would treat coal ash like any other household waste. Though either set of rules will be an improvement, the stronger rules are needed to protect imperiled wildlife in sensitive areas.

Even larger animals like red foxes are susceptible to poisoning as toxins accumulate up the food chain.

But even when the EPA does have strict rules in place, those rules aren’t always followed. Operators of coal ash sludge ponds and landfills routinely violate Clean Water Act effluent standards designed to protect our waterways from pollution. That’s why we’re suing the EPA to make them update and enforce the effluent standards that allow polluters to continue dumping toxic waste into our water.

We’re also fighting to hold polluters accountable in places like Maryland, where operators of the Mirant Brandywine landfill have been discharging coal ash toxins into Mataponi Creek, which flows through the Merkle Wildlife Sanctuary, into the Patuxent River and down to the Chesapeake Bay. Merkle is home to numerous native fish, red foxes, osprey, bald eagles and thousands of Canada geese.

Help protect our waterways

We need to protect aquatic species and preserve the natural heritage of our river ecosystems by making sure that coal waste is disposed of properly and does not end up in our waterways. Thanks for your support as we continue this fight to clean up toxic coal ash.



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