Evidence Mounts As We Wait For Meaningful Coal Ash Regulation

Guest Blog | June 7, 2010 | Coal, Energy Policy
The December 2008 coal ash spill at TVA Kingston facility brought the dangers of coal into the national spotlight but we're still waiting for EPA to act on this threat.
The 2008 coal ash spill in Harriman, TN brought the dangers of coal into the national spotlight, but we're still waiting for EPA make the right choice and strictly regulate this threat.

EPA has finally taken initial action to regulate coal ash.  In a preliminary announcement on May 4, EPA proposed two distinctly different options for regulating the toxic mess left behind from burning coal at power plants.  We anticipate that EPA’s formal draft rule announcement will be placed in the Federal Register in the next week to 10 days, opening the language up for public input.  One option would treat coal ash as a special toxic waste with all the associated environmental and public health safeguards.  The other option would treat the ash like mere household garbage.

So, even with this new movement from EPA, we’re still waiting for them to do what’s right.  It is now 19 months after TVA’s Kingston coal ash spill, and almost two years since EPA Administrator, Lisa Jackson, promised to develop regulations for this toxic substance.  Increasing evidence continues to surface revealing the devastating effects that current storage and disposal practices are having on our environment, so we cannot let EPA do just anything.  We need EPA to do the right thing!

Both of EPA’s options for dealing with coal ash would regulate it under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). The option that will treat coal ash as a special toxic waste utilizes Subtitle C.  Under this section of RCRA, anybody who generates, transports, treats, stores or disposes of coal ash will be required to get a federally enforceable permit.  This permit would encompass strict standards for the entire life-cycle of coal ash, including requirements for lining landfills and ash ponds, water quality monitoring, financial assurances in case of bankruptcy, corrective action plans, leachate collection systems, dust controls, emergency response plans and, importantly, structural stability and dam safety requirements.  Eventually all of the dangerous surface ponds like the one at Kingston or this pond in New Johnsonville, Tennessee will be shut down and ash will be stored in safer dry landfills.  Under this Subtitle C option, the EPA would have authority to inspect sites for compliance and enforce against violations.

Under the “household garbage” option, toxic coal ash would be regulated pursuant to RCRA Subtitle D.  The proposal suggests a number of standards for safe storage of coal ash, and surprisingly enough, these standards are an improvement over the current patchwork system under which the Kingston disaster occurred.  However, the Subtitle D option regulates only storage, not generation, transportation or treatment.  Moreover, this option would not have enforceable rules, only federal suggestions.  There would be no authority for inspections and the EPA could not make coal plant owners follow the new standards.  The option allows for lawsuits against violators but that’s nothing new, and it only happens after something has gone wrong!

Given all the evidence about the dangers of coal ash, it’s a simple choice that between the two, Subtitle C’s toxic waste regulations are far superior to Subtitle D’s household garbage guidelines.  And here is more reason why…

A report released recently by the Environmental Integrity Project and Earth Justice identified 31 additional coal ash containment sites that are poisoning water with arsenic and other toxic metals.   These sites are in addition to the 70 sites identified in 2007 by the EPA as having contaminated groundwater as a result of inadequate storage practices.  Unfortunately, southeastern states appear to be facing the greatest threat because almost half of these contamination sites are in our region — a result of burning so much coal for power.

The report identifies 6 sites in North Carolina, 3 in Florida, 3 in South Carolina, and 2 in Tennessee that have either contaminated nearby water sources or show signs of severe on-site pollution that threatens nearby water sources.  Pollutants include arsenic, mercury, boron, selenium and sulfates, all of which are pollutants regulated by the EPA to protect drinking water supplies and aquatic ecosystems.

The number of sites experiencing water pollution as a result of improper coal ash storage practices continues to increase as we wait for federal regulations.
The number of sites experiencing water pollution as a result of improper coal ash storage practices continues to increase as we wait for federal regulations.

Another important finding of this report is that the the documented cases of human or environmental damages are not limited “wet” ash ponds such as the one that failed at TVA’s Kingston facility in December 2008.  While this catastrophe brought the dangers of coal ash into the national spotlight, it’s clear that the dangers of coal ash also extend to improper “dry” storage practices such as unlined landfills. Fortunately, we now have an opportunity to push for a regulatory option that will phase out wet ash lagoons and will assure that landfills are properly operated with liners, run-on and run-off controls, leachate collection systems, dust controls, and financial assurances.

As the debate on the two proposed coal ash rules progresses, we’re hopeful that EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson will finally live up to her promise to enact real requirements for the entire life cycle of coal ash.  These regulations have been delayed twice already due to industry lobbying and intervention by the White house and the two-option proposal is a clear sign that powerful interests, including TVA, have the ear of EPA.  We are hopeful that EPA will not ignore the scientific basis for real regulations.  As evidence continues to mount and environmental groups organize around this issue, it’s becoming harder and harder for the EPA to further delay the adoption of meaningful, stringent, comprehensive and protective regulations such as those presented in the Subtitle C regulatory option.

As EPA action on this coal ash rule progresses, we anticipate there will be opportunities for public input through the 90-day comment period, including public hearings.  SACE, along with our allies, is requesting public hearings in our southeast region on the issue.  Comments can be made directly to EPA once the comment period opens in the next several days.  So, please stay tuned for your chance to join with others and push EPA for Subtitle C regulation so that coal ash is treated as what it is, toxic waste, not household garbage.

This post was co-written by Josh Galperin.

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