The Coal Ash Map
We created The Coal Ash Map to highlight the health risks posed by some of the most dangerous contaminants found in US waters: Arsenic, Beryllium, Boron, Cadmium, Chromium-6, Cobalt, Lead, Mercury, Nickel, Selenium, Thallium, and Uranium. The map visualizes where the United States Government is testing for, detecting, not detecting, and sometimes not even testing for these potential threats.
While each contaminant can come from a variety of industrial activities, and even from natural underground rock formations, what they all have in common is that they are all commonly found in coal ash, the largest solid waste stream produced by the US coal industry.
This map shows two things:
- The location of yellow, orange, red, and purple points represents sites where the contaminants have been tested for in the past decade. Their color represents SimpleLab's evaluation of the health risk posed by the concentrations measured.
- The locations of coal ash disposal ponds and landfills are shown as bright green points on the map. By clicking on one, you can see:
- The name of the facility
- Whether it is lined (i.e. less likely to leak into groundwater)
- Distance to the nearest surface water body
You can find more information about our methods in the Appendix.
Why Coal Ash?
Coal ash is a toxic byproduct of burning coal. It can take the form of a fine powder, wet slurry or coarse slag and it contains many of the world’s most harmful toxic metals. Because coal is burned for about 30% of US electricity production, it accounts for the second largest industrial waste stream in the United States.
The EPA has national rules for the management and disposal of coal ash due to the potentially harmful chemicals found within it. These rules, however, are highly controversial. In 2010, after several high-profile spills in Kingston, TN and Eden, NC many environmentalists and health experts fought to declare coal ash as a Hazardous Waste. With as much as $10B in annual coal ash recycling revenues potentially on the line, industry lobbyists fought back. After much deliberation on a complex issue, the EPA maintained coal ash as a Non-Hazardous Waste.
As with many toxic waste streams from industrial activity, coal ash doesn't simply disappear. Trucks and trains carry approximately 130 tons of coal ash to more than 1,100 dump sites nationwide. Some States even allow the recycling of coal ash into other products like top soil. Contaminants in coal ash have a way of sticking around, (scientists often say, “persisting”) and can readily leak into the environment if the holding infrastructure deteriorates. If things go wrong, these potentially harmful coal ash contaminants can find their way into our bodies through drinking water.
According to the US EPA draft report, Human and Ecological Risk Assessment of Coal Combustion Wastes people living within 1 mile of unlined coal ash ponds experience a 1 in 50 additional cancer risk from potential arsenic and cadmium exposure.
What makes this map special?
At SimpleLab, we care about the relationship between toxic contaminants and our water. With our access to one of the largest water testing datasets available and cutting edge geospatial technologies, we are able to paint this vivid picture for you.
One of the biggest challenges of showing different contaminants together on a single map is that they become dangerous to humans at different concentrations. Because of this, a useful map should not simply show the amount measured for each contaminant. We took this visualization a step further with our extensive contaminant health data, and made the map about human health impact, rather than just concentrations.
The map is for those who care about what may be in their groundwater well. It's also for those who have a more general interest in the environmental impact of one of the dirtiest human activities. Establishing causality between the contaminants and the disposal sites requires intensive research and is beyond the scope of this version of the map.
One thing we can see is how many regions with a high number of disposal facilities have not engaged in substantial water testing for the contaminants found in coal ash. The regions with few points represent what we don't know. States like California, with rigorous environmental testing programs, will appear brighter on the map due to the high number of tests performed.
See anything interesting or strange? Curious about how you can support our ongoing research? Send us your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org.
How to Read It
What do the points mean?
Each of the almost 34,000 points represents an aggregate of all water quality tests performed in its vicinity.This means two sampling locations very near to each other are displayed as one. Moreover, we only show the most recent data available for each contaminant, so if a location has results for arsenic in 2008 reading 10 PPB and in 2015 reading 3 PPB we only show the 3 PPB result.
When you click on a location, you see the most recent test result for each of the tracked contaminants. You also see if they were tested for, and not detected. Each detection is shown as:
[ Contaminant Name ] : [ Detection Result ] / [ SimpleLab Health Recommendation ] [ Unit ] - [ Approximate Health Risk Evaluation ]
What is the SimpleLab Health Recommendation?
Simply put, SLR is the most stringent of all Federal and State regulations and Public Health Goals set for a given contaminant. When official regulations are not available, as with new and emerging contaminants, we use our own research and other authoritative guidelines to make a safe recommendation. For more details on how we calculate health risk scores, contact us at email@example.com.
Health Risk Evaluation Definitions
- BELOW DANGEROUS LEVELS: Contaminant concentration does not violate the SimpleLab Health Recommendation (SLR).
- SLIGHTLY ELEVATED: Contaminant concentration is above SLR but within the range of sampling error.
- ELEVATED: Contaminant concentration is above SLR and could pose a small health risk with prolonged exposure.
- MODERATE: Contaminant concentration is significantly above SLR and could pose health risks to individuals drinking this water untreated for a prolonged period of time.
- HIGH: In the case of carcinogenic contaminants, “HIGH” indicates a concentration that exceeds a 1 in 10,000 additional lifetime risk of death due to cancer from having that contaminant in your daily drinking water. For harmful but non-carcinogenic effects, “HIGH” represents SimpleLab’s best estimate for an equivalent non-cancer threat to the human body. Water with any contaminant present at this level should not be consumed without treating it specifically for the underlying contaminant.
- VERY HIGH: Prolonged exposure to the contaminant could represent as much as a 1 in 1,000 risk of cancer or an equivalent threat to the human body.
- SEVERE: 10x the 'VERY HIGH' Concentration.
- VERY SEVERE: 100x the 'VERY HIGH' Concentration.
- EXTREME: 1,000x the 'VERY HIGH' Concentration.
- VERY EXTREME: 10,000x the 'VERY HIGH' Concentration.
Each of these risk levels was given a numerical score starting at 1 for Slightly Elevated and increasing by a factor of 10 at each stage. For example, 10 for Elevated, 100 for Moderate, and 1,000 for High. We determined the color of each point on the map by adding the scores for all the contaminants present at a given location.
Due to the inherent complexity of combining health risks from multiple contaminants, the colors and descriptions on the legend should be used as a general guide. The pop-up that appears when clicking on a point shows the individual contaminant results along with our Health Risk Evaluation.
For mobile users, who might not see the legend on the map, it is also available below. A Low color corresponds to a penalty at or under 1,000; Moderate corresponds to 1,001 - 10,000; High to 10,001 - 100,000; Severe to 100,001 - 1,000,000; Most Severe to 1,000,001 and above.
Just because there are no points in an area, does not necessarily mean the water there is safe. It means that we found no data for tests performed recently near that location. In order to show a contaminant as tested and not detected, we only go back 5 years. In other words, if something was tested 7 years ago, and no detection was made, we consider it untested.
A point with a light yellow color means there are no serious violations for this specific set of 12 contaminants but says nothing about whether tests have been conducted. The only way to know is to click on a point and view the details. Even when all or many of the coal ash contaminants have been tested for and not found, there could be other dangerous contaminants on site. For example, nitrates and PCBs are not tracked on this map.
We encourage you to use the map search tool (magnifying glass in lower left) to find your community and discover what kind of readings or gaps in testing are present. Contact us if you have questions.
Should I Panic?
In a word, no.
If you see a point with a severe risk assessment near your home, it doesn't necessarily mean you are drinking dangerous water. If your drinking water comes from a Public Water System, the source for that water may be far away.
The only way to be sure about your water is to test it regularly, especially if you are drinking from a private well in a high risk area or getting your water from a Public Water System that serves under 10,000 people.
SimpleLab is a social enterprise founded at the University of California, Berkeley with the mission of delivering the best water quality testing service imaginable. This means drawing the connection between water quality analysis and personal health factors in a way never done before. Access to safe drinking water is a basic human right, and continuous improvement to our testing, analysis, and reporting technologies is vital for enabling this.
We created the most informative water test ever conceived and called it Tap Score. The Tap Score water quality report includes detailed information about everything measured in your water, as well as personalized treatment product recommendations based on your contaminant profile and usage needs. We can help you determine what you should test for based on your water source and location. Visit http://mytapscore.com for more information about Tap Score and http://gosimplelab.com for more information about SimpleLab, Inc.
Appendix A: Methodology Summary
Legal Disclaimer: SimpleLab makes no claims or guarantees about the accuracy or completeness of the data in this map or in the informational pop-up windows.
Contaminant and Coal Ash Data
Data for the Contaminant Results was provided by the US EPA and represents the combined set of results from dozens of federal and state agencies. Data for the coal ash sites was acquired and published by the Sierra Club through a Freedom of Information Act request.
In order to make the Contaminant Results Data usable for this map, it was cleaned in the following ways:
- We removed sampling locations that do not properly represent environmental water. In other words, we made sure the points in the map represent wells, springs, streams, or sometimes waste effluent that is being released into the environment. We avoided contained sites that represent closed systems and do not interact with their environment.
- We included only results where the sample was collected in the last 10 years as of 1-Feb-2017. We've made the assumption that the dates attached to the tests can be trusted, even though a small fraction of the reported dates may be inaccurate.
- We included only samples of water, not solids found in sediment, etc.
- We used only results that can be converted to Parts Per Billion for this map. This means we ignored tests for radioactivity (pCi/L), for example.
- We did not add any sort of penalty to the points for not testing the full set of contaminants, hence the important note about non-detections above.
- As mentioned above, testing locations very near to each other were consolidated.
- We ignored results with bad geocoding (e.g. in Cleveland but appearing in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean) to the extent possible. We know a few results have been recorded in incorrect locations and will try to address this once we have the resources.
- While the health data represents intensive research by our team, it is actively being improved by a team of experts from leading universities. This is a work in progress and will evolve as the scientific community's knowledge about the health effects of these contaminants grows.
Data used for the analysis of contaminant health risks is sourced from a variety of professional health institutions and publically available resources. In particular, SimpleLab aggregates toxicological and epidemiological studies, then tracks the most concerning water-borne chemical contaminants. Contaminants are chosen if they fit any of the following rules:
- Regulated under the US Federal Safe Drinking Water Act
- Regulated under State laws
- Listed as Emerging Contaminants by US EPA
- Considered to be important to SimpleLab Customers
Toxicological and epidemiological reports prepared by health authorities and research institutions are then compiled for each contaminant. We categorize the key findings and structure the quantifiable health data according to the following analysis.
- Exposure Pathway
- Specific To Drinking Water?
- Specific To Oral Route?
- Quality of Scientific Rigor
- Testing Sample Size
- Quality Of Reporting Detail and Analysis
- Ability to Generalize Findings
- Subject Studied (Human, Ferret, Rat…?)
- Sample Demographics
- Hazardous Potential
- Carcinogenicity data
- Data pertaining to health effects on:
- Heart and Blood
- Central Nervous System
- Reproductive System
- Respiratory System
- Thyroid and Adrenal Glands
- Endocrine System
None of this would be possible without the great efforts put in by the individuals in some of these organizations:
Carto - For generously providing the visualization platform for the data. http://carto.com
The US Environmental Protection Agency - http://www.epa.gov
Sierra Club - http://sierraclub.org
California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment - http://oehha.ca.gov/
UC Berkeley and California Magazine - https://alumni.berkeley.edu/california-magazine/fall-2016-the-greatest-show-on-earth/well-in-control
The J.M. Kaplan Foundation - https://philanthropynewyork.org/news/jm-kaplan-fund-names-innovation-prize-finalists
Physicians For Social Responsibility - http://www.psr.org/environment-and-health/code-black/coal-ash-toxic-and-leaking.html?referrer=https://www.google.com/
Coal Ash Reading Suggestions
Earth Justice - http://earthjustice.org/advocacy-campaigns/coal-ash
Sierra Club - http://content.sierraclub.org/coal/disposal-ash-waste
EPA Coal Combustion Wastes Risk Assessment - http://earthjustice.org/sites/default/files/library/reports/epa-coal-combustion-waste-risk-assessment.pdf
Bitter Southerner - http://bittersoutherner.com/coal-ash/
We want to provide you with rich data concerning environmental health, water quality and contamination risks. Our analysis and mapping technology can support local, regional and national scale investigations. If you have particular needs or general questions about water contamination then please reach out to us. We want to support you and your work. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to make an inquiry.