As Hurricane Dorian hits the eastern coast of Florida this week, toxic coal ash may be spread to local water systems, Lisa Rinaman of Waterkeepers Florida told Sierra.
Coal ash, which contains toxic chemicals such as mercury, arsenic and lead, is the product that’s left over after coal is burned to create energy. After it’s burned, the coal ash is put into landfills or coal ash ponds.
Often unlined, these landfills and ponds leech toxic chemicals into the aquifer, producing elevated levels of these chemicals in the waterways and soil. The ash has been shown to cause birth defects, developmental delays and cancer in humans.
Three major coal ash sites stand to be impacted by Dorian’s winds and rainfall. Florida is currently home to 78 total coal ash impoundments, which are responsible for containing approximately 850 million gallons of coal ash, according to Sierra.
Because severe tropical storms are expected to increase in frequency as the planet warms, environmentalists cite coal ash impoundments as a particular area of concern for water safety.
During previous hurricanes of Dorian’s magnitude, similar environmental spills have taken place. Following Hurricane Katrina in 2008, a massive oil spill contaminated Louisiana water systems with 8 million gallons of oil. After Hurricane Florence in 2018, two of North Carolina’s rivers were polluted by a coal ash spill from a nearby Duke Energy impoundment.
Although legislation regulating coal ash disposal was put into place in 2015 in the form of the Coal Ash Rule, which made it illegal to store coal ash in wetlands and in areas prone to earthquakes, there are no laws against storing coal ash in flood zones.
Some environmentalists and environmental organizations hope to implement legislation classifying coal ash as a hazardous waste, which would prevent it from being stored irresponsibly.
To learn more about coal ash, click here.