Eighty-two tons of coal ash poured out of the Dan River Steam Station’s 27 acre waste pond and into the Dan River on the Virginia-Carolina border last week in the third largest coal ash spill in U.S. history. Water carrying high levels of arsenic, lead, mercury, selenium, and many other deadly toxins are being carried downstream and into towns like Danville, Virginia.
Coal-fired power plants like the Dan River Steam Station are the single largest source of both air and water pollution in this country. These power plants are responsible for over half the toxic pollution dumped into our rivers, lakes, and streams every year, impairing hundreds of bodies of water across the country annually. Additionally, 40 percent of our country’s carbon pollution, fueling irreversible global climate change, comes from coal-fired power plants.
Utility providers store coal ash, a byproduct of coal burning, in large open air basins, often near major waterways. While some utilities have invested in improved technologies, stripping toxins from the water, too many rely on these outdated and ineffective treatment methods that leave acres of contaminated waste water stored perilously close to our drinking water.
This practice has proven ineffective at separating the toxins produced from burning coal from the water that is eventually, and as in the case of the Dan River Steam Station, accidentally, discharged into our sources of drinking water. Stronger EPA standards are critical for enforcing the use of modern, affordable treatment technologies that remove these hazards and protect our waterways.
When the levees securing these basins fail, the consequences can be catastrophic. High profile spills have ruined millions of gallons of drinking water in towns throughout Appalachia. A similar spill in Tennessee in 2008 poured a billion gallons of coal ash into the Clinch River. In 2000, a ruptured basin dumped over 300 million gallons of coal slurry into the Tug Fork River. These are not isolated cases.
For years, science has shaped environmental regulations through EPA’s use of the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts. Unfortunately, special interests have orchestrated misinformation campaigns to scare consumers and roll back the very same environmental protections that would prevent disasters like these. Despite all of this, poll after poll shows Virginia voters support reducing pollution and protecting our air and water.
We cannot continue allowing third party interests and Tea Party extremists to erode our environmental protections. The EPA needs to set stronger regulations that would drastically reduce the amount of toxic and harmful pollutants discharged into our rivers, lakes, and streams. This would eliminate billions of tons in unnecessary, unwanted, and dangerous pollution each year, making thousands of miles of waterways safer.