AP Richmond reporter Sarah Rankin learned from a state lawmaker that Chinese coal ash was being imported into Virginia, despite millions of tons of ash already stored near power plants, threatening surface and ground water with contamination by heavy metals. Like other states, Virginia is struggling with how to dispose of its existing waste.
Her story pinpointed where the overseas ash was coming from: China, India and Poland over the past two years. While the foreign shipments of the industrial byproduct were moving through Virginia to Wisconsin and Ohio, interviews with concrete producers and coal ash recyclers and sellers showed more ash was being imported into Virginia from other states.
One environmentalist raised the irony of the situation: "We have millions of tons of this sitting along our riverbanks. Why in the world would we be importing it from other states and countries?"
For exposing a problematic industry practice with statewide environmental and health implications, Rankin's story wins this week's Best of the States.
The story explained for the first time why the state’s concrete producers need the ash, a useful substitute for cement, as well as how the nation’s shift away from coal toward natural gas and renewable energy has reduced the supply. Additionally, it highlighted the success of a number of recycling operations outside the state and challenged why Virginia's largest utility, which has reuse rates well below the industry average, isn’t doing more and hasn’t even evaluated the costs.
Rankin reached out to ports across the country, and none besides the Port of Virginia reported handling coal ash.
Work on the story showed the difficulty of tracking coal ash shipments. Federal trade statistics don’t include coal ash, and no one currently tracks how much arrives at ports nationwide, though the American Coal Ash Association is starting to try, in what its executive director called a “very labor intensive effort.” Rankin reached out directly to ports across the country, and none besides the Port of Virginia reported handling it.
In Virginia, the issue of coal ash disposal is far from settled and has prompted growing public concern. The same day the story ran, the state’s governor moved to put on hold plans to close a controversial coal ash disposal pond in northern Virginia, saying more information was needed first. The next day, a federal judge ruled another pond was leaking arsenic in violation of the Clean Water Act.
"That story took a piece of her soul." — Steve McMillan, Richmond, Va., news editor
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution devoted half of its page A5 on Sunday to Rankin’s story and photos, and outlets such as The New York Times, The Washington Post and FOX News used it online. Facebook engagement was solid at 2,200 shares.
Richmond, Virginia, News Editor Steve McMillan remarked, "That story took a piece of her soul — but all good deeds are rewarded." The reward for Rankin's work includes this week's $300 Best of the States prize.