Forty-four coal-ash storage sites in the nation, including seven in Kentucky, have a high hazard potential, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced Monday.
That rating means that a collapse at those facilities — such as the one that happened last December in Kingston, Tenn. — could kill people or cause serious damage to property, roads and utility lines.
The rating does not mean any of the coal-ash sites are unsound or about to collapse, however. It is a measure of what would happen if one of the ponds failed, not how likely that is to happen.
"The high hazard potential means there will be probable loss of human life if there is a significant dam failure," said Matt Hale, director of EPA's office of research, conservation and recovery. "It is not a measure of the stability of the dam."
The sites in Kentucky are in Lawrence, Mercer, Carroll and Jefferson counties, the EPA said.
North Carolina has the most sites on the list, a dozen. The largest concentration is near Cochise, Ariz., where there are seven storage ponds.
The agency said it will inspect each of the 44 coal-ash sites located near communities to make certain they are structurally sound.
Coal ash, a product of burning coal, is kept in liquid or a slurry, in containment ponds or dams. The EPA lists more than 400 such impoundments across the country, but the 44 singled out Monday represent those that are near populated areas, posing a higher risk of danger.
Two days before Christmas, when the coal-ash pond near Kingston broke, 5 million cubic yards of ash and sludge flowed across more than 300 acres, destroying or damaging 40 homes. The disaster prompted a review of the safety of such storage ponds that hold the coal-burning waste byproducts near large coal-burning power plants.
The storage ponds hold fly ash, bottom ash, coal slag and flue-gas residues that contain toxic metals including arsenic, selenium, cadmium, lead and mercury, although generally at low concentrations.
Until now, the national coal-ash site list has not been provided to the public. Earlier this month, the Army Corps of Engineers said that it didn't want the locations disclosed because terrorists might target the sites. Hale said that issue has been resolved.
The EPA has been to half of the 44 sites and expects to have reports on those sites in the near future, Hale said.