Coal Slurry and Coal Ash

The problems with coal slurry and coal ash are two sides of the same coin. SouthWings works to expose, document, and combat the hazards posed by each.

Coal Slurry

Before being transported to market, coal must be washed to separate it from the surrounding soil and rock – the more impurities a company can remove from coal, the higher its market value and the lower the transportation costs. The washing process generates huge volumes of liquid waste, while the mining process generates millions of tons of solid waste. The cheapest way for coal companies to deal with these wastes is by constructing dams from the solid mining refuse to impound the liquid waste in the heads of valleys, close to their coal processing plants. Coal sludge impoundments, or “ponds,” can store billions of gallons of liquid coal waste known as sludge or slurry.

Coal companies say the sludge contains mostly water, rocks and mud. But it also contains carcinogenic chemicals used to process coal and toxic heavy metals that are present in coal, including arsenic, mercury, chromium, cadmium, selenium, and others.

Marsh Fork Elementary School. Photo Courtesy of Carl Galie.

Marsh Fork Elementary School. Photo Courtesy of Carl Galie.

These chemicals can leach from the often-unlined slurry ponds into groundwater and nearby waterways, leaving neighboring communities that are dependent on well water without access to clean water. Catastrophic dam failures—such as the one at Buffalo Creek in 1972 that killed at least 118 people in a matter of minutes and left thousands homeless—have been responsible for many deaths.

SouthWings flights have been instrumental in exposing the danger posed by these impoundments and helped lead to the relocation of Marsh Fork Elementary School from directly below Massey Energy’s Brushy Fork Impoundment—one of the largest impoundments, designed to hold 9 billion gallons of coal sludge—moving those children out of harm’s way.

Coal Ash

Coal Ash Ponds, Arden, NC. Photo Courtesy of Western North Carolina Alliance.

Coal Ash Ponds, Arden, NC. Photo Courtesy of Western North Carolina Alliance.

At the other end of the coal cycle, burning coal to create electricity generates huge quantities of residue, or ash. The cheapest way for the utilities to dispose of this ash is to mix it with water and dump it into large, often unlined, “ponds.” As with slurry impoundments, these ash ponds contain toxic materials that can leach into groundwater or seep through cracks in the dams and reach surface water. In addition, many of these ash ponds are above population centers. EPA has identified 25 coal ash dams in the Southeast as “high hazard” impoundments, meaning that if they fail, there is a high likelihood of fatality.

Kingston Coal Ash Spill. Photo Courtesy of John Wathen/Hurricane Creekkeeper.

Kingston Coal Ash Spill. Photo Courtesy of John Wathen/Hurricane Creekkeeper.

In December 2008, a coal ash dam at Kingston, Tennessee, did fail, devastating the Emory River, destroying several homes, and covering nearly 300 acres with toxic coal ash. SouthWings was among the first on the scene to assess the situation and document its effects. The impacts of this disaster have spread, as much of the coal ash has been transported to a landfill in Uniontown, Alabama, a predominantly African American, low-income community, where residents have raised concerns about its health effects. We continue to collaborate with organizations monitoring this environmental justice issue.

We continue to fly our partners to monitor coal ash impoundments throughout the Southeast. And, although we hope it never happens again, we stand ready to respond if there is another catastrophic dam failure.

Read a 2009 account of a SouthWings flight over high hazard coal ash impoundments in North Carolina here.