Accidents Waiting to Happen

Toxic threats to our rivers, lakes and streams
Released by: U.S. PIRG Education Fund

Clean water is essential to America’s health and welfare. Our lakes, rivers, streams and creeks provide us with water to drink, give character to our most beautiful natural places and give us places to fish and swim. Yet, across the country, thousands of miles of waterways are threatened by at least one of five major potential sources of contamination: coal ash pits, oil pipelines and trains, fracking wastewater pits, animal waste lagoons and toxic chemical storage facilities.

Our analysis and review finds thousands of “accidents waiting to happen” across the country, including 31 toxic facilities in flood zones in New Jersey; 170 hog waste lagoons in flood zones in North Carolina and at least 326 coal ash ponds at coal plants within a quarter-mile of a waterway.

Many of these facilities could, in the event of a spill, devastate the environment and threaten human health.

Industrial sites use toxic chemicals that pose long-term threats to the health of humans and wildlife:

  • Many industrial facilities use and store harmful chemicals that can damage waterways in the event of an accident. In 2016, more than 21,000 facilities nationwide reported managing 14 million tons of toxic waste — a number likely far lower than all non-waste toxic material stored and used in production processes.
  • Recent spills from a wide variety of industrial sites have threatened drinking water and damaged the environment:
  • In 2017, a storage facility spilled chemicals into a creek near Roanoke, Virginia, killing tens of thousands of fish.
  • In 2017 a steel plant in Portage, Indiana, spilled chromium, a heavy metal, into Lake Michigan, causing a nearby community to shut off its drinking water intake.
  • In March 2018, a spill of ferric chloride at a Georgia chicken processing plant killed more than 8,000 fish.
  • In New Jersey, which requires facilities to report on hazardous chemical storage, 31 industrial facilities with at least five toxic chemical storage units on site are located in a 100-year flood zone. Of those facilities, 16 are in the heavily populated Newark-Jersey City area across the Hudson River from New York City.

Oil is transported via train and pipeline routes along and across America’s rivers:

  • Millions of gallons of oil are transported daily across the country on America’s 140,000 miles of freight railroads and through roughly 400,000 miles of long-distance pipelines, often alongside and across rivers and streams.
  • Oils spills frequently occur during transportation by rail and pipeline. Since 2000, 21 railway spills and 734 pipeline spills of crude oil over 1,000 gallons have been reported by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA).
  • One rail oil route linking the Bakken shale fields of North Dakota with Chicago travels alongside the Mississippi River and through a 100-year flood zone for at least 154 miles. A train traveling this route was responsible for a 2015 spill that came close to contaminating the Mississippi River. And the Keystone Pipeline travels for 455 miles through flood zones on its route from North Dakota to Texas, while crossing 2,370 waterways.

Animal waste lagoons at factory farms threaten lakes and streams with pollution:

  • In 2007, 2.2 billion livestock and poultry in the U.S. produced 1.1 billion tons of manure. Most livestock in the U.S. are raised in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) where waste must be managed and stored. A CAFO produces about 20,000 tons of waste per year on average, and a single farm with 2,500 dairy cows produces as much solid waste as a city of 411,000 people.
  • Lagoons frequently spill or overflow. In 2018, Hurricane Florence caused at least 32 hog waste lagoon overflows in North Carolina. And a study published in 2000 found that, from 1995 to 1998 in just 10 surveyed states, there were more than 1,000 animal waste spills that killed 13 million fish.
  • In North Carolina alone, there are 170 hog waste lagoons within 100-year floodplains, and 136 within a half-mile of a public water well, according to an Environmental Working Group/Waterkeeper Alliance analysis of satellite imagery.

Pits of toxic coal ash sit along America’s major rivers and lakes:

  • Large impoundments at coal-fired power plants store ash, a toxic byproduct of burning coal. As most coal-fired electric power plants are located next to bodies of water for cooling purposes, these coal ash pits are often located along rivers and lakes, sometimes separated from waterways by only a thin retaining wall.
  • Coal ash pits frequently spill and leak.
  • In 2018, floodwaters from Hurricane Florence inundated a coal ash pond at the Sutton Plant in North Carolina, sending toxic ash waste into a nearby lake and the Cape Fear River.
  • In 2008, a coal ash pit at the Kingston Plant in Tennessee spilled 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash waste into the Emory and Clinch rivers. Following the spill, sediment samples were devoid of life, and fish were found with elevated levels of toxic selenium and mercury.
  • An analysis of electric utility reporting by Earthjustice in December 2018 found evidence of harmful groundwater contamination in 22 states at 67 different coal plants.
  • In the U.S., 181 coal plants with on-site coal ash pits lie within a quarter-mile of freshwater or ocean, and 26 lie in a Federal Emergency Management Agency 100-year flood zone. These 181 plants generate at least 50 million tons of coal ash each year. They are also home to at least 326 coal ash pits, including 22 that were found to be in poor condition according to a 2014 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) assessment.


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