Q&A: An improved tool for watchdogging coal ash in the Southeast

Coal ash waste is an issue of particular concern in the Southeast, which is where the majority of coal ash impoundments are located and has been the site of high-profile spills in recent years.

The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) created its informational website SoutheastCoalAsh.org in late 2012 as a resource to those wishing to learn more about the topic. Since then, the coal-ash issue’s landscape has changed many times over thanks to the 2014 Dan River spill, but especially because both the federal and state regulatory landscapes have changed. The site has been updated to include more prominent mapping of coal ash sites across the Southeast along with tracking industry’s responses to deadlines established by EPA’s coal ash rule and state rules.

To learn more about SoutheastCoalAsh.org’s relaunch, and the goals SACE has for that platform, Southeast Energy News spoke with Amelia Shenstone, Campaigns Director, and Adam Reaves, High-risk Energy Coordinator.

Southeast Energy News: What prompted SACE to update SoutheastCoalAsh.org?

Reaves: We’re constantly trying to make this site more useful for the public. We’ve made everything mobile- and tablet-friendly so people can browse and find information from any type of media device, and we’ve made the mapping feature more prominent, too.

There’s a lot of information to trudge through, so we work hard to keep the site up to date whether it’s for people who are just learning about coal ash and want to know if they live or work close to a waste site, or those in industry, government or the media who are seeking public documents or more in-depth information.

A huge amount of information is being disclosed by utilities as they respond to the EPA’s coal ash rule. We’re finding the information we feel is most important for the public and putting it on the website in a way that’s easy for people to find and understand. For example, the EPA’s rule had a deadline this past January for industry to report on the amount of ash and wastewater on their properties. The next big milestone is Nov. 17 when the company’s closure plans are due. SoutheastCoalAsh.org will link to all of that information. Our hope is the site will make it easy for interested parties to quickly find the information they’re looking for on any given coal plant in the Southeast.

SoutheastCoalAsh.org is a good place for people to find out what their states are doing, or not doing, to protect them, to learn about the environmental and health hazards and to find out – where is this stuff? Is it close to me and my family? To where I work? We look at it as a powerful resource to raise public awareness and to educate folks.

Why put so much effort into watchdogging the coal ash issue when SACE is also focused on solar and wind energy issues?

Shenstone: The purpose of SoutheastCoalAsh.org is to give concerned people a tool to protect themselves and their communities from the dangers of coal ash, which is a major liability for utilities; it presents the possibility of catastrophe as well as ongoing pollution. And as our regulations catch up to protect public health, it’s going to be an economic liability as well. The website is a tool to help people to defend themselves.

Coal ash is one of the reasons why we would consider coal a high-risk energy choice. SACE overall works to promote energy sources that address global climate change and to protect communities. That means we need more energy sources like solar and wind and to stay away from risky sources like coal and nuclear. Addressing the inherent risk of coal by addressing coal ash is an important part of moving to a cleaner energy economy in the Southeast.

For people new to the coal ash issue, how can your website help them around the learning curve?

Reaves: The ultimate purpose of the website is to be a one-stop resource for coal ash so people can see where coal ash is related to them and their communities.

With the relaunch, our mapping tool is the first thing visitors should see on our website. The reasons people might be interested in where the ash is located include locating neighborhoods that are nearby and waterways where people might be recreating – boating, swimming, fishing, and people might wonder if they’re getting drinking water a source downstream from the coal ash sites. The site’s visitors can click on the icons on our map and go directly to information about the coal ash impoundments nearest them. The site is set up so that you get an overview first off, and that leads you to more and more information.

How is SACE working with other organizations – corporate, environmental advocacy, government – when it comes to coal ash?

Shenstone: There’s a broad collection of groups that are concerned about coal ash in the Southeast. We work closely with those who are listed as partners on SoutheastCoalAsh.org, and we are frequently in conversation with those groups who are on the ground at those sites. A good example would be the Waterkeepers, who are watching the floodwaters in North Carolina that followed Hurricane Matthew.

We’re also pushing several states to do better when it comes to regulating and protecting us from coal ash. And we are working with the companies when we can, and definitely pay attention as they release their closure plans. The way we interact with utilities is varied across the region; we do our best to make our case to the utilities to let them know what we would want them to do and why before we would pursue other avenues. We also try to raise pressure at state and federal level to do more when it comes to cleaning up coal ash.

How can people learn more about SoutheastCoalAsh.org?

Reaves: We’re hosting a free webinar on Oct. 19; those interested can register online.

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