Roy Luck via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Accidents waiting to happen

Toxic threats to our rivers, lakes and streams

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.

  • <h4> Industrial chemicals</h4> <h5>A tank rupture at this Freedom Industries plant in West Virginia spilled up to 7,500 gallons of the chemical MCHM into the Elk River, poisoning residents and interrupting the water supply of 300,000 people.</h5><em>U.S. Chemical Safety Board</em>
  • <h4>Oil transported via train or pipeline</h4> <h5>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.</h5><em>U.S. Environmental Protection Agency</em>
  • <h4>Animal waste lagoons</h4> <h5>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.</h5><em>Natural Resources Conservation Service Georgia</em>
  • <h4>Coal ash pits</h4> <h5>In 2014, 39,000 tons of toxic coal ash and 27 million gallons of coal ash pit water spilled into the Dan River in North Carolina after a pipe burst at the Dan River Steam Station.</h5><em>Waterkeeper Alliance/Rick Dove on Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)</em>
  • <h4>Fracking waste pits</h4> <h5>A 2017 study in Environmental Science & Technology found approximately 400 wastewater pit spills in just four states between 2005 and 2014.</h5><em>United States Geological Survey</em>

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.
In 2015, a crude oil train derailed on the banks of the Galena River in Illinois.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

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.
Hog waste lagoon in Georgia.
Natural Resources Conservation Service Georgia

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.
Coal ash spill into the Dan River in North Carolina, 2014.
Waterkeeper Alliance/Rick Dove on Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

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.
A fracking waste pit at a natural gas drilling site in the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania.
United States Geological Survey

Fracking waste pits store toxic and radioactive wastes:

  • Fracking wastewater pits contain waste from hydraulic fracturing, a method of producing oil and gas. For each well, hydraulic fracturing can require pumping millions of gallons of fracking fluid — water often mixed with sand and hundreds of chemicals — underground. After the fracking process is complete, the fluid that flows back to the surface also contains additional toxic substances from underground, and is then often stored in uncovered pits that are prone to spills and leaks.
  • Fracking wastewater pits frequently spill. A 2017 study in Environmental Science & Technology found approximately 400 wastewater pit spills in just four states between 2005 and 2014.
  • In Pennsylvania, among 254 fracking wastewater pits identified by SkyTruth in 2015, more than one in four — 69 in total — were located within a quarter-mile of a stream or river.
Our recommendations

To protect our waterways, state and local governments should strictly regulate activities that involve the production, storage or use of large quantities of dangerous substances, and ensure that, to the extent those activities occur, they take place far from water. Policymakers should:

  • Transition away from industrial operations that use or generate huge volumes of toxic or other waste that threatens our water and our health. For each type of “accident prone” operation profiled in this report, safer alternatives exist. For example, many manufacturers have reduced their use of toxic chemicals by switching to safer alternatives or making production less wasteful.
  • As that transition is underway, ensure that facilities that use or store large quantities of toxic material are not permitted near our waterways. In particular, officials should keep areas near our rivers, lakes, streams and wetlands free from facilities that pose major pollution, and should work to close or relocate facilities currently sited by water.
  • Strengthen and enforce regulations on the storage and handling of toxic materials at sites that cannot be relocated or closed.
  • Reject any efforts to weaken existing federal clean water protections — including current measures to undermine modest rules for coal ash and severely limit the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act.
Tell the EPA: No Dirty Water Rule

To protect our waterways, policymakers must reduce our dependence on these inherently risky facilities and stop siting them near the water’s edge.