WASHINGTON — Dozens of communities nationwide are at risk from a coal ash spill like the one that blanketed a Tennessee neighborhood last year, but the Obama administration has decided not to tell the public about it because of the danger of a terrorist attack.
The Environmental Protection Agency, as part of an investigation opened after the Tennessee spill, classified 44 coal ash storage ponds in 26 communities as potential hazards.
The agency, which earlier this year pledged to be transparent and carry out its work in the public view, wanted to disclose the information until the Army Corps of Engineers said it shouldn't because of national security concerns.
The information is now caught in a bureaucratic tussle, with one agency wanting to alert the public to the hazard and another agency fearing that widespread release of the information might, if terrorists got involved, put the public in danger.
"We intended to release the information, but then we received this letter," said an EPA official, who was not authorized to speak about the matter.
In a letter dated June 4, the Corps told the EPA and the Federal Emergency Management Agency that the federal government should not alert the public to the whereabouts of the sites.
"Uncontrolled or unrestricted release (of the information) may pose a security risk to projects or communities by increasing its attractiveness as a potential target," Steven L. Stockton, the Army Corps' director of civil works, wrote in a letter obtained by The Associated Press.
At the same time, the Corps letter says the information should be passed on to state officials or coal plant operators and they should tell nearby communities of the risks.
The sites have existed for years with little or no federal regulation. And oversight at the state level varies, with some treating coal ash ponds like dams used for power generation and flood control and others not regulating their construction or siting at all.
The 44 sites were ranked as high hazards, meaning they could cause death and significant property damage if a storm, a terrorist attack or a structural failure caused them to spill into surrounding neighborhoods.
Eric Halpin, special assistant for dam and levee safety for the Corps of Engineers, said that "we did not direct anyone to withhold or not release information," but he said federal policy says "you shouldn't make it easy for the bad guys to do their jobs" by posting lists on the Internet or giving them to the media.
A Homeland Security Department spokeswoman said late Friday that the Corps position was not the final word on the matter and could be reversed. A final recommendation will be made by the FEMA administrator after a review by the National Dam Safety Review Board.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., in a news conference Friday, questioned why coal ash storage ponds are not being treated like other hazardous waste sites. For instance, the EPA readily discloses the location of Superfund hazardous waste sites and also annually reports pollution released by chemical facilities and other factories in neighborhoods.
The Energy Department also posts on its Web site the power plants with waste ponds and landfills and how much ash is deposited in them each year.
"If these sites are so hazardous, and neighborhoods nearby could be harmed irreparably, I think it is essential to let people know," said Boxer.