With all the news following the Dan River coal ash disaster this February, it may seem that North Carolina is the only Southeastern state with coal ash woes. Unfortunately, there are plenty of problems to go around with at least 450 ash dumpsites scattered across our region. Many of these are aging, unlined, wet storage impoundments located on vital water resources and drinking water supplies, just like those on the Dan River.
To date, little attention has been given to Florida’s coal ash problems, even though it’s home to 78 ash impoundments. That is changing, however, as SACE recently teamed up with our partners at Earthjustice, Waterkeeper Alliance, and the Apalachicola Riverkeeper to investigate the impoundments at Gulf Power’s Scholz Generating Station, located on the banks of the Apalachicola River, which supports a multi-billion dollar seafood industry and one of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the country.
Our testing revealed illegal seeps pouring high concentrations of toxic heavy metals into the river, and last week we filed a federal federal lawsuit to stop Gulf’s pollution and protect the Apalachicola.
The list of metals seeping out of impoundments at Scholz read like a who’s who of the periodic table, including carcinogens like arsenic, cadmium, chromium, selenium, as well as aluminum, barium, beryllium, copper, lead, nickel, zinc, selenium, and the neurotoxin mercury. One of the most shocking samples revealed arsenic levels at as much as 300 times the amount allowed by law for safe drinking water. In addition to posing a threat to human health, all these toxics can cause serious harm to the fish and other wildlife that call the Apalachicola home.
The Apalachicola River is a public asset and national treasure that deserves protection from Gulf’s toxic waste. Over the years taxpayers have spent millions of dollars buying huge tracts of land around the Apalachiocla for watershed protection and 106 miles of the river were recently designated as a national recreation trail. The river supports more than 15,000 species, many of which are found nowhere else in the world and several that are threatened or endangered.
A lack of federal coal ash regulations means that states oversee handling and disposal of America’s second largest industrial waste stream. With it’s porous geology and high water table, Florida is especially vulnerable to pollution from wastes stored in landfills and lagoons–which is why Florida law prohibits any hazardous waste landfills. Unfortunately, a new law passed in 2013 exempting coal ash dumps from this prohibition and the state lacks many basic safeguards like requirements for impoundments to be properly lined, monitored, designed or cited. This lack of regulation also results in a lack of oversight for impoundments at retiring plants, like Scholz, meaning these legacy sites could be left to pollute in perpetuity.
In the absence of comprehensive federal regulations or enforcement of current water protection laws from state environmental agencies, groups like SACE and our allies will continue to turn to the courts to secure protection for our communities and waterways for all to enjoy. Coincidentally, June is National Rivers Month, a great time to get out on your river, volunteer with a local Waterkeeper and speak out for coal ash protections in your community and beyond!