Coal ash spill: A billion barrels of muck

From the archives: A massive coal ash spill turned a Tennessee town into an "apocalyptic moonscape," Lesley Stahl reported in 2009

A special post by the producer of "Coal Ash: 130 Million Tons of Waste," Shachar Bar-On:

"A black tsunami" is how Lesley Stahl described a giant coal ash spill at a Tennessee electric plant in 2008.

This tide of ash - said to be many times larger than the Exxon Valdez spill --smothered homes and choked the river, and the disaster became a wake-up call for environmentalists, the government, and the utility industry itself that coal ash disposal may need to be better regulated and monitored.

When Lesley reported this story for 60 Minutes in 2009, then-EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said the federal government would weigh in with regulations by year's end, potentially even labeling coal ash a hazardous waste, which would place much more stringent disposal requirements on it.

Five years later -- reporting on yet another coal ash spill for this Sunday's broadcast -- we learned that there are still no federal regulations. The EPA did conduct a lengthy review, and a regulatory proposal is expected later this month.


The following is a script of "Coal Ash: 130 Million Tons of Waste" which aired on October 4, 2009. Lesley Stahl is the correspondent.

We burn so much coal in this country for electricity that every year that process generates; listen to this number, 130 million tons of waste. Most of it is coal ash, and it contains some nasty stuff. Environmental scientists tell us that concentrations of mercury, arsenic, lead and other toxic metals are considerably higher in coal ash than in ordinary soil. When coal ash is disposed of in dry, lined impoundments it's said to be safe. But it's often dumped into wet ponds--there are nearly 500 of them across the country--and in those cases the ash can pose health risks to the nearby communities.

Jim Roewer: We get about forty-eight percent, nearly half of the electricity in this country from coal.

Jim Roewer is one of the top lobbyists for the power industry.

Jim Roewer: Coal's going to be around for a long time.

Lesley Stahl: We really can't get rid of coal.

Jim Roewer: We shouldn't get rid of coal. We've gotten ...

Lesley Stahl: Well, should, or shouldn't -- we can't. And coal makes waste. Would you say that the industry has done a good job of disposing of the coal ash waste?

Jim Roewer: We can do better.

Lesley Stahl: Does that mean no?

Jim Roewer: Well, we had a Kingston spill.

That's Kingston, Tennessee, where last December a giant retention pool of coal ash buckled under the weight of five decades of waste.

911 Call: Now all the power lines and everything have been knocked out.

A billion gallons of muck shot into the Emory River like a black tsunami.

911 Call: One person in the house, he's alive.

Engulfing homes, uprooting trees.

911 Call: Everything is gone.

And throwing fish out of the water.

Man #3: No, don't eat the fish, please.

Residents woke up to an apocalyptic moonscape of "ashbergs" everywhere.

Man #3: This stuff is just sitting there, steaming.

The spill was a hundred times larger than the Exxon Valdez and it was all coal ash.

Jim Roewer: You'd never heard of coal ash before Kingston?

Lesley Stahl: Never.

Jim Roewer: Never.

Lesley Stahl: Never.

Jim Roewer: Wasn't a problem?

Lesley Stahl: Well, it was a problem, we just didn't know.

The problem is: Where do you put all that stuff? Here the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), dumped up to one thousand tons of coal ash every day into a wet pond near the plant, slowly amassing a waste-cake 60 feet high. Some of the ingredients, according to the EPA: Arsenic, lead, mercury, selenium, cadmium, and other toxic metals.

[Lesley Stahl: You know, some people say that this is a poisoned meadow.]

[Leo Francendese: I guess that's, you know, one way to describe it. It's just does not belong here. It needs to come out.]

Leo Francendese is an environmental "Mr. Fix It." He was sent by the EPA to clean up this mess.

Leo Francendese: And in the wrong circumstances coal ash is dangerous. Breathing it, that's dangerous.

The summer heat can bake the ash into a fine talc-like powder that can wreak havoc on your lungs.

[Lesley Stahl: And this is all coal ash right along here?]

So while the government has never formally labeled coal ash a hazardous waste, it's being treated as such here.

[Lesley Stahl: Is that all coal ash?]

[Leo Francendese: Yeah.]

As we left the site, we were scrubbed clean, as was our car.

[Lesley Stahl: Oh my goodness, look at this. Is this every car that goes through...]

[Leo Francendese: Every car that come]

[Lesley Stahl: --the site, goes through this.]

[Leo Francendese: That goes through the site comes through this.]

Gary Topmiller lives right on the river. He had a front row seat when the spill covered his dock.

Gary Topmiller: Now what the doctors did tell me was, "Get out of there." And I said, "I don't have any place to go."

Lesley Stahl: So how do you live? You don't go out on the water?

Gary Topmiller: No, we don't go out of the house.

From the house he sees scientists collecting samples to analyze just how bad the water is. The river looks clear, but Topmiller says that's deceptive.

Lesley Stahl: Okay this came-- comes out of right here.

Gary Topmiller: Right, it comes right out of the top.

Lesley Stahl: And I should shake it?

Gary Topmiller: Turn it upside down and start shaking it. And this is what the river looks like once it once that stuff gets suspended

Lesley Stahl: Oh my goodness.

Gary Topmiller: In it. And how they're going to get that all out of the river, I don't have an idea.

Most of his neighbors have packed up and left. Go down the river and you pass home after home that are deserted the hubbub of children replaced by the hum of heavy machinery. Those left behind say the noise is one thing, what really infuriates them is executives from the power plant telling them that coal ash is as safe as dirt.

[Anda Ray: We have broken the trust of ...]

Anda Ray oversees environmental policy at the Tennessee Valley Authority, which is responsible for the spill. I asked her how toxic she thinks coal ash is.

Anda Ray: I'd say that the constituents, the things that are in the coal ash, are the same things that are naturally occurring in soil and rock.

Lesley Stahl: So, is it like dirt? Would you say that? Would you say that sentence? That stuff is like dirt.

Anda Ray: That ash material is higher than dirt in two areas. And that is arsenic and thallium. And we are monitoring those and the effect on the water.

Lesley Stahl: So would you swim in this river today?

Anda Ray: Yes, I would.

She later retracted, remembering the advisory.

Anda Ray: We've advised people not to swim in the river where there's ash.

I then asked about company reports that repeatedly questioned the stability of the ash ponds.

Lesley Stahl: Should the TVA have seen this coming?

Anda Ray: You know ...

Lesley Stahl: You were warned repeatedly.

Anda Ray: Lesley, there were red flags that have been noticed all through the years. And we recognize that those red flags should have been addressed. But yes, we missed them, and we don't ever want to miss them again.

The spilled ash is now being loaded onto trains and sent off to a dry landfill in Alabama. Right now, coal ash disposal is regulated by the states, some of which have strict rules, some hardly any at all.

[Lisa Jackson: EPA can be enforced for good.]

The new head of the EPA, Lisa Jackson, is reviewing whether the federal government should get involved by labeling coal ash a hazardous waste, which would mean much tighter regulations and oversight.

Lesley Stahl: Why wouldn't you right now, this minute, on 60 MINUTES, declare that coal ash is a hazardous waste?

Lisa Jackson: EPA, in making a regulatory determination, has to look at a number of factors, including the toxicity of the material and how it's currently managed. But that's done according to law. And I have committed that no later than December we will make a regulatory proposal with respect to this material.

The industry opposes calling coal ash hazardous waste. They're pushing for another solution: recycling.

[Ted Yoakam: That hill over there might be forty feet of coal ash.]

Ted Yoakam, a lawyer in Virginia, says recycling can breed its own disaster. He says that in 2002 the state's power company, Dominion, got rid of some of its excess coal ash by giving it to this golf course in Chesapeake.

Lesley Stahl: Wow, how many tons of coal ash, do you know, did they use to build this golf course?

Ted Yoakam: We know that they put at least 1.5 million tons.

Lesley Stahl: Million tons?

Ted Yoakam: Yes.

[Woman voice on loud speaker: For conditional use permit to construct and operate a golf course...]

In this city council meeting the consultant hired by the company that built the golf course, assured the mayor that coal ash was safe for reuse.

[Consultant: In every aspect it's the same as dirt, as it has been explained to me. I'm not aware of any negative aspects of it at all.]

The mayor then turned to a Dominion executive.

[Mayor: Is there any environmental concerns we should be aware of?]

[Dominion Executive: No, sir. We at Dominion Power are fully in compliance with all the federal and state regulations.]

Two years later, this internal company study about handling the ash for the golf course recommended that workers use "impervious gloves" and "particulate-filtering respirators" due to "potential health risks.

[Robyn Pierce: Problems with children, birth defects ...]

Robyn Pierce and her neighbor Stacy Moorman live across the street from the golf course.

Robyn Pierce: It was said that they were told they should wear respirators and body suits. Nobody came up and down either one of these two streets and handed out wardrobe for us.

Stacy Moorman: But our children

Robyn Pierce: Our children

Stacy Moorman: Were out there.

Robyn Pierce: Were out there playing in the yard breathing this stuff. How does that happen?

Also, Dominion's internal risk assessment warned of the dangers of coal ash leaching into the water supply. To prevent that the contractor who built the golf course was supposed to build a two-foot barrier under the coal ash, and one eighteen inches on top. The contractor's engineer certified this was done. But attorney Yoakam, who represents townspeople who are suing Dominion, suspects it wasn't.

[Ted Yoakam: As you can see right here, it's right at the surface.]

[Lesley Stahl: Oh, my God.]

[Ted Yoakam: Insects--]

[Lesley Stahl: That's coal ash.]

[Ted Yoakam: Insec--]

[Lesley Stahl: Of course, it is. Yeah.]

[Ted Yoakam: Insects have pulled it up. You can see how it flies away.]

Last year, the city dug into the golf course, did a test, and found elevated levels of toxic metals in the water.

Ted Yoakam: With all the knowledge that Dominion had about the coal ash and the lead and the arsenic and beryllium and all the poison to put it in this environment, it's just an outrage.

That water test was just for the golf course. Dominion told us, EPA testing "shows no harm to residential wells" around the golf course.

Stacy Moorman: I invite anybody from the companies who have put it over there to come to my house and have dinner. And I will use that tap water.

Stacy and her neighbors think it's too risky to drink the water. So, after Dominion refused to provide them with bottled water, they began trudging to a local church, where the city pipes in guaranteed clean water.

[Lesley Stahl: Is that how you get your drinking water?]

[Boy: Yes. We use it for brush our teeth and take baths.]

Dominion declined to give us an interview, but most power companies rely on recycling because it cuts the 130 million tons of coal waste every year in half. The industry calls recycling "beneficial use."

Robyn Pierce: Don't even-- beneficial for who? The only people it was beneficial for were for those utility companies that had to get that stuff off their hands because they were already in violation with stockpiling too much. That is what "beneficial use" meant.

But the EPA in the Bush administration endorsed "beneficial use" and now coal ash is recycled in dozens of ways--as cement substitute, for instance. It's also placed under roads and in deserted mines and it's added to products from carpets to bowling balls to bathroom sinks. While the industry says the uses have been studied, I asked Lisa Jackson whether the EPA knows if some of the recycled products are safe.

Lesley Stahl: Schoolroom carpeting.

Lisa Jackson: I don't know. I have no data that says that's safe at this point.

Lesley Stahl: Kitchen counters.

Lisa Jackson: The same.

Lesley Stahl: Fifty thousand tons of coal ash byproducts have been used in agriculture. Now, what's being done through EPA to look at the use of coal ash in agricultural products? Anything? Are you-- is there a study? Is there ...

Lisa Jackson: I'm not sure that there is any study out there right now.

Lesley Stahl: How did we get to a place where coal ash is in products without anybody knowing?

Lisa Jackson: We're here, now, because coal ash at this time isn't a regulated material.

Lesley Stahl: Right.

Lisa Jackson: By the federal government.

Lesley Stahl: Right.

If the EPA declares coal ash a hazardous waste lobbyist Jim Roewer says "beneficial use" would die and the cost of disposal would skyrocket.

Jim Roewer: We look at that and we're looking at something on the order of 12 to 13 billion.

Lesley Stahl: Billion?

Jim Roewer: Billion.

Lesley Stahl: And who'd pay for that? We know. The customers.

Jim Roewer: Environmental protection doesn't come cheap.

He says the current state-by-state regulatory system may not be perfect, but it works.

Lesley Stahl: Could you say right now that the disposal in all the coal ash plants today are safe, and that they're all doing a proper job?

Jim Roewer: All I can guarantee is that they're going to do their best to manage coal ash safely so that you don't have a release like Kingston.

Lesley Stahl: Are all these plants safe?

Jim Roewer: That's what the state regulations are all about, to insure the safe management of coal ash.

Lesley Stahl: But, what, you're not saying they are safe. You're playing word games with me. You're not saying, "They are safe."

Jim Roewer: You want me to guarantee that ...

Lesley Stahl: Yeah, I do. I think everybody ...

Jim Roewer: That they're absolutely safe.

Lesley Stahl: I want -- Yes, I do.

Jim Roewer: Well, I -- what I can say is that state regulations and the utility management practices are put in place to ensure with a goal of safe management of coal ash.

Lesley Stahl: I don't think many people really trust the utility industry, I'm sorry to tell you.

Jim Roewer: You're not the first one to tell me that.