Impacts of Kingston Coal Ash Spill Continue to Emerge

Guest Blog | December 3, 2010 | Coal, Energy Policy

kif_2501The last ash-burdened train departed Roane County, Tennessee and headed to Perry County, Alabama on December 1, 2010. The train’s load was toxic coal ash from the 2008 Kingston coal ash disaster that brought unprecedented devastation to East Tennessee two years ago this month. Two years after the spill and into the recovery process, one might expect that the last train was taking with it the final load of toxic coal ash.  In fact, as the train departed, the peer-reviewed, scientific journal Environmental Science and Technology published a new study from Duke University, which reported that the spill had and continues to have dramatic impacts on the area.

As reported by Greenwire on the new study:

Contaminants at coal ash dumps and spill sites may pose worse environmental risks than thought previously, according to a study released today by Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment.

Researchers found high levels of arsenic in water under the site of a massive coal ash spill long after a cleanup had reduced surface contamination to levels deemed safe.

In more than 220 water samples drawn below sediment in downstream rivers, the researchers found arsenic at levels of 2,000 parts per billion. EPA’s safety threshold for arsenic is 10 parts per billion for safe drinking water and 150 parts per billion for protection of aquatic life.

Besides these striking findings specific to the Kingston disaster, the new research also draws attention to the shortcomings in current ash testing methods used to classify the toxicity of the ash.

According to Dr. Avner Vengosh, one of the authors of the new paper:

“The take-away lesson is we need to change how and where we look for coal ash contaminants… Risks to water quality and aquatic life don’t end with surface water contamination, but much of our current monitoring does.”

The paper’s abstract states:

“These results have important implications for the prediction of the fate and migration of [toxic coal ash constituents] in the environment, particularly for the storage of coal combustion residues (CCRs) in holding ponds and landfills, and any potential CCRs effluents leakage into lakes, rivers, and other aquatic systems.”

Concerning the findings, Dr. Vengosh concludes:

“It’s like cleaning your house. Everything may look clean, but if you look under the rugs, that’s where you find the dirt.”

“At more than 3.7 million cubic meters, the scope of the TVA spill is unprecedented, but similar processes are taking place in holding ponds, landfills and other coal ash storage facilities across the nation…As long as coal ash isn’t regulated as hazardous waste, there is no way to prevent discharges of contaminants from these facilities and protect the environment.”

Kingston TVA
Ash cleanup efforts at the Kingston Plant

Reports from the Tennessee Department of Health, Oak Ridge Associated Universities, and others have lead people to believe that the Kingston coal ash disaster was merely a physical anomaly, a ruptured dam that caused temporary property damage and was not much more harmful than everyday dirt.  Now, after the homes are restored and the last train of ash has departed, this new research reminds residents of East Tennessee what they already knew: the damages of Kingston go beyond reparable property damage and are far worse than dirt.  There are health and environmental concerns still lingering.  More importantly, these problems are not Kingston-specific, they are heightened by the disaster there, but the risks of water contamination associated with wet coal ash storage are present at each and every one of the over 600 ash impoundments across this county.

This report comes on the heals of a 6-month long public comment period in which EPA received input on possible federal regulation of coal ash at coal plants.  The EPA is considering whether to treat coal ash as a hazardous waste, which would allow comprehensive federal oversight and enforcement, or as a household garbage, which would only permit the EPA to establish unenforceable federal guidelines. EPA is now in the process of reviewing the more than 300,000 written comments so it will take some time for EPA to finalize their rulemaking.

(All quotes from Dr. Vengosh were reported by Paul Quinlen for Greenwire)

Guest Blog
My Profile