A year since the Kingston disaster and still no coal ash regulations

Guest Blog | December 22, 2009 | Coal, Energy Policy

SC TVACoalAshAd03:SC TVACoalAshAd03How long will it take before the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) lives up to its responsibility to protect human health and the environment?  With respect to coal combustion waste, apparently a little longer.  The EPA’s December 17th announcement that it will delay a proposal for regulating coal combustion waste (CCW) is another disappointing turn in the battle over how to manage this toxic byproduct of coal-fired electrical generation.

Meanwhile, CCW continues to degrade water sources across the U.S. and the risk of another Kingston-like disaster remains just as high today as it was a year ago.

One year ago, the retaining wall at TVA’s Kingston Facility failed, spilling an estimated 5.4 million cubic yards of CCW into the Emory river and surrounding countryside in Harriman, TN.  While TVA initially  claimed that the CCW was not toxic and posed little threat, it quickly became apparent that this substance that was spread several feet deep over 300 acres of East Tennessee contained numerous heavy metals and carcinogens.

You can hear Dr. Stephen Smith, SACE Executive Director, discussing this issue during an interview on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition during an audio feature, “1 Year Later: TVA Still Cleaning Up Coal Ash Spill.”

The Kingston disaster thrust the coal plant safety generally and CCW specifically into the national spotlight. It became apparent that CCW was stored in retention ponds like the Kingston facility at hundreds of sites across the United States and that piecemeal state regulations were not adequate to protect against the threat that CCW poses.

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson has postponed the release of proposed regulations for coal combustion waste
EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson has postponed the release of proposed regulations for coal combustion waste

Shortly after the Kingston tragedy, SACE’s Executive Director, Stephen Smith, testified before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee about the dangers of CCW and the failure of EPA to regulate CCW.  In January 2009, then newly-appointed EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson promised to have a proposal for regulating this toxic substance by the end of 2009. Unfortunately, it is now apparent this promise will not be fulfilled because the agency is still “actively clarifying and refining parts of the proposal.”  A new deadline for a decision has not been announced.

EPA and independent studies clearly document the hazardous nature of CCW.

The hazards of CCW are well documented.  EPA’s own reports, as well as numerous studies by independent environmental organizations and academic institutions have recorded the toxic chemicals present in CCW.  These include arsenic, aluminum, boron, cadmium, lead and others that are known to cause cancer, birth defects, reproductive problems and damage to nervous systems.  An EPA report issued in 2007 found that unlined coal ash waste ponds pose a cancer risk 900 times above what is defined as acceptable.  Later that year, another EPA report identified 24 proven and 42 potential damage cases as a result of CCW-caused contamination.

Human Health Effects of Toxins Found in Coal Combustion Waste

Pollutant Effects
Aluminum Lung disease, developmental problems
Antimony Heart damage, lung problems
Arsenic Multiple types of cancer
Barium Gastrointestinal problems, heart problems
Beryllium Lung cancer, respiratory problems
Boron reproductive issues
Cadmium lung disease, kidney disease, cancer
Chromium cancer, ulcers
Chlorine respiratory distress
Cobalt lung, heart, liver, and kidney problems
Lead nervous systems disorders, developmental disorders
Manganese nervous system and muscle disorders
Mercury cognitive deficits, developmental delays
Molybdenum anemia, developmental disorders
Nickel cancer, lung problems
Selenium birth defects, impaired bone growth
Thallium birth defects, nervous system/reproductive disorders
Vanadium birth defects
Zinc reproductive disorders

And the risk of these contaminants getting into nearby water sources is not limited to sudden releases like the one at the Kingston Facility.  Because of poor storage and disposal practices, CCW poses a significant threat to human health and the environment through the gradual leaching of these toxins into nearby ground and surface waters.  In some cases, CCW is disposed of by pumping it into abandoned coal mines where it then finds its way to nearby aquifers or rivers.  In other cases, it is a CCW impoundment that leaches into nearby water sources because of a lack of proper lining and monitoring.

In October, EPA released a study of toxins in wastewater discharges from coal ash impoundments.  It concluded what environmental groups like EarthJustice and EIP have known for years: that new regulations for  CCW are needed because of the significant toxic releases from impoundments and the likelihood that these releases will increase significantly over the next few years as new air pollution controls are installed (more on the increasing toxicity of CCW below).

Delaying regulation endangers the public as the risk of CCW continues to increase.

Federal regulation of CCW should be adopted immediately to ensure that surface impoundments across the U.S. are stabilized and that the toxins contained in CCW are no longer contaminating nearby water sources.  The toxicity of CCW is alarming in itself, but it is downright frightening when you consider that coal ash represents the second largest source of industrial waste in the country, with an estimated 130 million tons generated each year.

Three generations of pollution control at TVA's Kingston facility.  As our air becomes cleaner, coal combustion waste will become dirtier and more dangerous.
Three generations of pollution control at TVA's Kingston facility. As our air becomes cleaner, coal combustion waste will become dirtier and more dangerous.

And it’s getting more and more toxic.  As air quality regulations continue to tighten, more and more advanced pollution controls will keep toxins out of the air, but these toxins don’t just go away.  They remain in the coal combustion waste that now threatens our water sources.

EPA findings this past year seem to raise the stakes even further.  In June, EPA released a list of 44 “high hazard potential” sites at 26 different coal burning facilities across the United States.  Many of these facilities are located in the Southeast, including 13 sites at 8 facilities in North Carolina.  These sites are all similar to TVA’s Kingston facility that burst in December 2008 in that they are storing massive amounts of coal ash in loosely regulated storage ponds.  The Center for Public Integrity has posted an interactive map that allows you to identify the coal ash storage sites near you.  And if you live in the Southeast, there are coal ash storage sites near you.

In all, we need federal regulations immediately to first ensure that another Kingston disaster doesn’t happen, but also to stop the slow leaching of these same toxins due to poor storage and disposal of CCW.

So why the delay?

One possible explanation is that industry groups have expressed concern that regulating CCW as a hazardous waste would impede its beneficial reuse.  Nearly 1/3 of CCW is recycled in various uses such as filler material for concrete and asphalt.  Listing CCW as a hazardous waste would impose significant reporting and handling requirements that would make it more difficult to recycle.  However, the EPA is free to develop hybrid regulations that would regulate CCW as a hazardous waste until it enters the recycling chain, and then regulations would be lessened to encourage its beneficial reuse.

Another possibility is that the EPA is trying to determine whether to regulate only the storage of CCW in retention ponds or to regulate all storage and disposal of CCW.  It is generally agreed that wet storage facilities pose the greatest risk.  The slurry of water and coal ash means that the toxins contained in the CCW are more mobile and can more easily escape into nearby waterways.

However, dry storage of CCW in landfills, while preferable to wet storage in retention ponds, also poses significant risk if the landfill is not properly lined or does not include proper monitoring systems to detect the movement of CCW toxins into nearby aquifers or river systems.  Regulating only the wet storage of CCW would only address part of the problem.  Regulations must include requirements for synthetic liners and monitoring systems at dry-storage facilities to protect the public from this toxic substance.

The coal ash spill at TVA's Kingston facility could have been avoided if proper federal regulations were in place
The coal ash spill at TVA's Kingston facility could have been avoided if proper federal regulations were in place

Regardless of what is causing the delay, Lisa Jackson and the EPA must put the welfare of human health and the environment above all else.  Certainly we want to encourage the beneficial use of CCW, but not at the expense of our health or the health of our environment.  Protecting ourselves from this toxic substance requires storage and disposal in synthetically lined landfills that are equipped with monitoring systems to ensure that toxins aren’t leaching into nearby water sources.

All the evidence has been collected and it isn’t even a close call.  CCW poses a significant risk to human health and the environment.  The EPA must issue strict federal regulations that phase out CCW wet-storage and mandate proper safeguards for dry-storage facilities.

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