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Tom Hegen Captures Beauty and Horror of Toxic Ash Ponds

Posted by Elizabeth Burton on

coal ash ponds

Though German photographer Tom Hegen has captured aerial photos of dozens of subjects around the world, his work focuses primarily on industrial alterations made to the natural landscape. His photos of airports, farmland and coal mines -- among others -- demonstrate the negative and often irreversible impact humans have on nature. In his work, Hegen seriously considers the outsized effect industrialized humans have on the earth -- depicting massive processing plants, commercial structures and swaths of deforested land. A recent photography series released by Hegen -- entitled the Ash Pond Series -- exposes the large and growing coal ash ponds of Poland. Though Hegen solely shot in Poland for the series, these toxic bodies of water can be found across Europe and around the world. Concern over the human and environmental health risks posed by toxic ash ponds spiked over the last few years in the US, when the Trump administration refused to require or enforce cleanup and regulation of the ponds. Though other states have much higher concentrations of unlined or undisclosed lining status ash ponds, there is at least one coal ash pond in Washington State that has not disclosed its lining status to citizens of the state. Recognizing the threat of ash ponds as a local, national and worldwide issue, we at Living Deep are also concerned. Follow below to learn more about photographer Tom Hegen, coal ash ponds and the lack of much-needed regulation. 

About German Aerial Photographer Tom Hegen

According to his artist’s bio on Lumas.com, Tom Hegen was born in the early 1990s in Königsbrunn, Germany. While he currently lives in Munich, he studied at the Augsburg University of Applied Sciences which is approximately eighty miles northwest of his now home. Though Hegen majored in graphic design in university, he studied photography on the side and threw himself into the art shortly after graduating. Tom Hegen’s travels reportedly influenced his love of photography -- particularly journeys taken by plane over mountains, oceans and islands. 


Today, Hegen’s work focuses “on the traces humans leave behind in the environment in order to sustain their way of life.” Since launching his photography career, Hegen has published two photo books -- Tom Hegen: Habitat in 2018 and Tom Hegen: Aerial Observations on Airports earlier this year in 2021. At such a young age, Hegen has already been the recipient of numerous awards. These include the International Photography Award, the Red Dot Design Award and the German Design Award.

Hegen’s Approach to Photography

Tom Hegen’s beautiful and affecting aerial landscape photography has captured the attention of environmentalists, journalists, artists, critics -- and even national governments -- around the globe. The World Wide Web is littered with articles and celebratory buzz about Hegen’s photography. In the 2019 article “Tom Hegen’s Aerial Photography Captures the Human Impact on Natural Landscapes” for The Verge, Alex Parkin offers a fitting description of Hegen’s work. Parkin writes that Hegen’s colorful, textural “photos look like abstract paintings” upon first glance. It takes a few moments of dissection to realize that Hegen’s photographs are “kind of the opposite of abstract — they’re actually objective documentation of our planet.”

Parkin writes that “it’s easy to ignore where the materials that make up our food, our homes, and our gadgets come from, but seeing them in these photos makes you pause for a second and consider the consequences of our way of life.” Hegen’s work is enormously affecting not because he shocks viewers immediately with graphic, stunning images of deforestation and oil spills. His work is effective largely due to these calm, peaceful moments of peering before one realizes the photos’ true subjects.

Offering a Bird’s Eye View of Man’s Messes

In an interview with Caroline Meeusen for Visual Pleasure Mag, photographer Tom Hegen describes his practice and the goals he has for his work. When asked by Meeusen what he tries to capture with the lens, Hegen answers that he uses photography to “explore the origin and scale [of recent human influence] to understand the dimensions of man’s intervention in natural spaces.” He hopes to use his photos to “direct attention toward how humans can take responsibility” for the damage they have caused. Hegen embraced aerial photography because the medium and approach represents “a compelling way to document those interventions because it makes the dimensions of human force on earth visible.” Through an aerial perspective -- far different from our typical standard perspective -- we are forced to “see something familiar from a new vantage point.” Hegen hopes this shift in perspective will encourage people to make a change. 

Inspiring Viewers to Advocate for Change

Interviewed by Oscar Holland for CNN, Hegen reiterated his desire to expose viewers to “landscapes that have been heavily transformed by human intervention” which are often carefully kept out of the public eye. Holland wants to impress upon people that we are living in a “new human era” during which we are placing enormous stress on the natural environment and causing changes that would never have been possible before the industrialization and technological advancement of recent decades. Though he wants to avoid becoming “the guy pointing the finger and saying ‘look what we’ve done wrong,’” Hegen does want to “‘put focus on these topics.’” He hopes that “‘then maybe people will treat it as a starting point for thinking more about how we do things.’"

Tom Hegen Focuses His Lens on Toxic Ash Ponds

According to Tom Hegen’s website, the artist was drawn to ash ponds after viewing their vivid and vibrant colors from above. He notes that the stunning appearance of ash ponds is formed through the mixture of additional chemicals with the coal ash. These chemicals are added to the ash in order to “support neutralization” of toxins. Though Hegen was struck by the beauty of these water bodies, he was disheartened to learn of the damage wrought by untreated ash ponds. Hegen writes that these “structures pose serious health risks for the surrounding environment as chemicals in the ash can leach into groundwater and surface waters.” Shot in Poland, Hegen’s Ash Pond Series displays the ethereal, kaleidoscopic beauty of ash ponds while revealing their outsized -- and potentially horrific -- influence on local populations. 

What Are Ash Ponds?

The ash ponds of Europe represent one of photographer Tom Hegen’s frequently captured subjects. For those unfamiliar with the man made body, Lisa Evans explains in her article “Leaking and Looming, Legacy Coal Ash Ponds Spew Poisons. Is There One Near You?” for EarthJustice.org. In the United States -- writes Evans -- coal ash ponds are “toxic waste sites that live long after coal plants have closed, slipping through regulatory cracks as they continue to poison communities.” Evans explains that coal ash is left behind after “power companies burn coal for energy.” 

Over the past several decades, utilities disposed of coal ash by “mixing it with water and dumping it into unlined ponds, where its toxic chemicals — which have been linked to cancer, heart disease, reproductive failure, and stroke — leach into groundwater.” This marshy mixture of ash, local plant life and water creates ash ponds. While some ash ponds are covered with topsoil after they have been retired, others are left unregulated and unaddressed -- allowing their toxins to affect the surrounding landscape, nearby wildlife and long-standing human settlements. 

Coal Ash Threatens Human Life

The Physicians for Social Responsibility report “Coal Ash: Hazardous to Human Health” explains the dangers of coal ash exposure -- in water, air and soil -- to both humans and animals. The PSR reports that “depending on where the coal was mined, coal ash typically contains heavy metals.” These metals may include “arsenic, lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium and selenium, as well as aluminum, antimony, barium, beryllium, boron, chlorine, cobalt, manganese, molybdenum, nickel, thallium, vanadium, and zinc.” 

According to the PSR, the EPA has found “that living next to a coal ash disposal site can increase your risk of cancer or other diseases.” Those who live near “an unlined wet ash pond” and retrieve drinking water from a well system “may have as much as a 1 in 50 chance of getting cancer from drinking arsenic-contaminated water.” Such toxins -- “if eaten, drunk or inhaled” -- can cause or contribute to “cancer and nervous system impacts such as cognitive deficits, developmental delays and behavioral problems.”

Recent Deregulation of Coal Ash Ponds in the United States Rolls Back Health and Safety

Over the last three years, controversy erupted across the United States due to poor and changing regulations surrounding ash ponds. Because of the toxic nature of coal ash ponds -- particularly those which have been neglected or improperly retired -- and related health risks, many Americans were confused by a 2018 ruling finalized by the EPA in 2018. In their July 2018 article “EPA eases rules on how coal ash waste is stored across U.S.” for The Washington Post, Juliet Eilperin and Brady Dennis reported on the shocking ruling. Eilperin and Dennis wrote that in the summer of 2018, the EPA finalized a rule overhauling “requirements for handling the toxic waste produced by burning coal.” This rollback offered “more flexibility to state and industry officials who had sought a rollback of restrictions put in place in 2015” by the Obama Administration. 

The 2015 rule legally required coal plants to use wastewater treatment technologies to properly dispose of the byproducts -- e.g. toxins and other waste -- of coal processing. According to The Washington Post, the 2018 rule -- signed under ex-energy lobbyist Andrew Wheeler -- extended “the life of some existing ash ponds from April 2019 until October 2020,” saving the industry “between $28 million and $31 million a year in compliance costs.” In some cases, the rule even “empower[ed] states to suspend groundwater monitoring.” Investigation of leaking or contaminated plants and ponds under the 2018 rule was also hampered as the rule allowed “state authorities to sign off” instead of “a professional engineer,” which was required by the earlier ruling. 

2018 Ruling Worsened by 2020 Order allowing Unlined Ash Ponds to Leak Coal Combustion Residuals

In late 2020 -- shortly before the presidential election -- the Trump administration’s EPA expanded its 2018 order. Rebecca Beitsch explained the agency’s move in her article “EPA may violate courts with new rule extending life of unlined coal ash ponds” for The Hill. Beitsch wrote that the EPA announced it would “allow utilities to store toxic waste from coal in open, unlined pits” despite the fact that even properly lined ash ponds are known to leak. She noted that the risk of leaks and contamination by ash pits “are even higher when a clay barrier is the only layer used to hold the arsenic-laced sludge” and a lining is left out of the equation. 

With more than four hundred coal ash ponds scattered around the US, American residents are incredibly concerned about potential health and safety fallout from the order -- which was instituted mere months ago in the midst of a public health crisis. Horrifically -- explained Beitsch -- a recent Environmental Integrity Project survey found that “91 percent [of ash ponds reviewed] were leaking toxins in excess of what EPA allows, contaminating groundwater and drinking wells in nearby communities.” 

Renewed Regulation of Coal Ash Ponds Likely Under Biden EPA Administrator Michael Regan

How the Biden Administration will respond to the dangers posed by ash ponds in the US remains to be seen, but the President’s pick for EPA administrator -- Michael Regan -- has a history of regulating the coal industry. Regan was confirmed by a somewhat surprising super majority of 66 to 34 in the Senate on 10 March 2021. As Americans -- and others around the world -- wait for an explicit answer, it is clear that continued exposure and advocacy by activists and artists like Tom Hegen are still much-needed. 

Update: According to Earthjustice, Representative Steve Cohen introduced the Ensuring Safe Disposal of Coal Ash Act to Congress earlier this week on 8 April 2021. This act would roll back many of the allowances made for the coal industry during the Trump Administration. The Earthjustice article explains that Rep. Cohen's bill would "direct the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to strengthen requirements necessary to protect human health and the environment from this toxic ash."

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