Green Century Capital Management and others want more information from natural gas companies on a controversial means that they are using to drill new wells. Meanwhile, the investment firm also announced steps that FirstEnergy has taken to mitigate risk from coal ash.

Regarding natural gas, production from traditional reserves has been dwindling, and an increasing number of new wells require hydraulic fracturing-a process where water, chemicals and particles such as sand are injected into the ground under extremely high pressure-to unlock vast reserves previously unavailable. It has been estimated that up to 80% of new wells will require some form of hydraulic fracturing. But investors are concerned that this process may contaminate water supplies and cause other harmful environmental and community impacts.

As a result, shareholders of approximately 20 natural gas drillers, led by Green Century  and the Investor Environmental Health Network, are asking companies and their service suppliers for greater transparency about the business and environmental risks associated with fracturing.

Shareholder resolutions have been filed at 12 of the companies that ask them to increase transparency regarding the environmental impact of their operations, mitigate risks by switching to less toxic fracturing fluids and adopt the best practices for drilling and managing wastes. Among the 12 companies where shareholder resolutions were filed are Cabot Oil & Gas Corporation (COG), Chesapeake Energy (CHK), ExxonMobil (XOM), Hess Corporation (HES), EOG Resources (EOG) and Range Resources (RRC).

In addition to Green Century, other investors and investment advisors involved with the effort include As You Sow, Miller/Howard Investments, Catholic Healthcare West, First Affirmative Financial Network, the Mercy Investment Program, the New York State Common Retirement Fund, the Shareholder Association for Research & Education, Pax World Management, the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia, the Sustainability Group, and Trillium Asset Management.

Green Century also announced that FirstEnergy Corp, an Akron, Ohio-based utility, is planning to stop pumping coal ash into the 1,000-acre pond at its Bruce Mansfield Plant in Shippingport, Pa., and transition to a dry method of waste storage. As a result of FirstEnergy's decision, investors withdrew a shareholder proposal on coal ash from the company on January 28.

"We commend FirstEnergy for taking action to mitigate the risks associated with wet storage of coal ash by transitioning to dry storage for all of its facilities," says Emily Stone of Green Century Capital Management. "We will continue to pressure the company to fully dewater the Little Blue Run pond as it finalizes its closure plan." Other shareholders that filed the resolution include Trillium Asset Management Corporation, the Camilla Madden Charitable Trust and Catholic Healthcare Partners.

Coal ash is a by-product of burning coal that contains arsenic, mercury, heavy metals and other toxins filtered out of smokestacks by pollution control equipment. The toxins in coal ash have been linked to cancer, organ failure and other serious health problems. Ash is often stored in enormous quantities in landfills, impoundment ponds or abandoned mines, many of which lack adequate linings that prevent leaching of these components into groundwater.

The Tennessee Valley Authority's (TVA's) 1.1 billion gallon coal ash spill in December 2008 that covered over 300 acres in eastern Tennessee with toxic sludge highlights the serious environmental and financial risks associated with coal ash. TVA has estimated a total cleanup cost of up to $1.2 billion, not including the extensive legal claims that have arisen in the spill's aftermath.

According to Green Century, FirstEnergy was not the only company to receive inquiries or shareholder proposals about coal ash. Investors in major coal utilities, including Southern Company and CMS Energy, have been urging the companies to mitigate risks associated with the storage of coal ash.