Top 3 Coal Ash Stories to Follow in 2017

Guest Blog | December 27, 2016 | Coal, Energy Policy

2017 is shaping up to be an important year for coal ash in the Southeast. There’s so much happening at once. As utilities begin closing coal ash pits, communities and advocates are raising concerns about threats to surface and groundwater and calling on environmental agencies to ensure that our water and public health is protected.

We’ve narrowed down three critical stories to keep your eye on in 2017, and we’ll be revisiting these stories throughout the year.

Will TDEC allow TVA to sweep coal ash under the rug?

Advocates gather outside TVA's public meeting in Oak Ridge, TN to push TVA to store coal ash waste from its Bull Run plant safely.

If the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) has its way, 13.4 million tons of coal ash will be left in unlined pits, some of which are inundated with groundwater. TVA is planning to close coal ash pits at four power plant sites in Tennessee by as early as 2017. TDEC must not allow TVA to get away with inadequate closure.

In August 2015, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) released a Commissioner’s Order requiring TVA to investigate its coal ash storage pits, and identify and clean up any coal ash contamination problems it discovers. If TDEC holds TVA’s feet to the fire, this order could result in improved plans that clean up coal ash by excavating it to lined landfills away from Tennessee’s waterways.

Rather than taking the common sense approach of removing toxic ash to lined landfills, TVA currently plans to leave its coal ash buried in groundwater at many of its sites, creating a continual contamination risk for Tennessee’s groundwater and surface water. Tennesseans swim, fish, boat, and play in these rivers and streams, and drinking water supplies are drawn from some of the groundwater and surface water that is currently at risk.

Of all the utilities in the Southeast, TVA should be taking the lead on proper coal ash closure, given the dramatic consequences of its spill at the Kingston Fossil Plant in 2008. However, TVA has not committed to excavating its ash at even a single site. South Carolina’s three utilities are excavating all 20 million tons of ash from unlined, waterfront pits to lined landfills and proving that excavation can be done relatively quickly while creating huge positive results for the environment. Since excavation began at one site, arsenic contamination has decreased by over 90 percent. If South Carolina utilities can remove their ash, surely TVA can too.

Recent flooding due to Hurricane Matthew in North Carolina at one of Duke Energy’s power plant sites shows the threat of coal ash spills posed by increasing extreme weather events in our region. Still, TVA hasn’t provided enough details to the public about the risks involved in their current closure plans or how they will prevent similar disasters from unfolding on Tennessee’s rivers.

TVA could begin implementing its plans, only to have TDEC later require TVA to remove ash from pits TVA has already expended resources to “close,” adding unnecessary inefficiency and costs to the process. We and our allies have been engaging with TVA and TDEC for months on various comment processes related to TVA’s closure plans, and the problems with these plans should be well-known to the agency. Now is the time for TDEC to step in and protect Tennessee’s clean drinking water and ratepayers, and we hope they will.

Will utilities and regulators take the risks of coal ash pollution seriously?

In Florida and Alabama, three coal-fired power plants are under scrutiny from advocates and communities. So far, utilities and regulators have not responded appropriately to our concerns. It’s critical that the issues raised are addressed because the risks are serious.

Florida: We, our allies, and residents in Lakeland, FL, are concerned about the safety of the coal ash landfill at Plant CD McIntosh. Earlier this year, Sierra Club commissioned a University of South Florida expert in the hydrogeology of Florida to study the Plant’s coal ash landfill, which is owned by Lakeland Electric and Orlando Utilities Commission.

The expert, Dr. Mark Stewart, found that McIntosh’s landfill cannot meet the key requirements of EPA’s coal ash rule. More alarmingly, Dr. Stewart found that conditions at CD McIntosh may lead to the formation of a catastrophic sinkhole which could drop toxic ash into the Floridan aquifer, threatening the drinking water supply in Lakeland and beyond.

Sierra Club’s report came on the heels of a study by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) commissioned by SACE, which clearly demonstrates that electricity from CD McIntosh’s coal boiler is more expensive than available, cleaner generating options. We created a short video highlighting these and other issues with the plant.

Coal ash across the southeast needs to be removed from unlined storage to lined landfills in stable terrain away from waterways. It’s particularly dangerous to store coal ash in Florida, where waterways are so ubiquitous and the ground so porous, even if it’s stored in lined landfills. That’s why Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) needs to incorporate the EPA’s minimum standards for handling, disposal, and storage of coal ash into state policy and hold utilities accountable for meeting those standards.

Alabama: Two coal-fired power plants have recently been in the news due to concerns that their coal ash pits may be impacting or could negatively impact groundwater and surface water. So far, Alabama’s Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) has not incorporated the Environmental Protection Agency’s minimum standards for coal ash handling, disposal, and storage into state policy, so Alabamians have plenty of cause for concern.

In southern Alabama, at Plant Barry, Alabama Power is planning to leave 15.8 million tons of coal ash in an unlined pit beside the Mobile River. SACE and other organizations in the state are concerned that Alabama Power’s closure plans are inadequate and will not prevent groundwater contamination or eliminate threats to the river and environment.

TVA’s Colbert Fossil Plant, in northern Alabama, poses similar concerns. The plant was retired in April 2016, but its toxic ash remains on site. TVA plans to leave 3.2 million tons of coal ash in an unlined, leaking pit near the Tennessee River. The federal utility has acknowledged that its coal ash pits have contaminated groundwater on the plant’s property, and local residents are concerned the contamination is more widespread.

They have raised the possibility of a class-action lawsuit against TVA stemming from high cancer rates some residents believe are connected to groundwater contamination from the plant. TVA reportedly asked for a list of community demands. Even if a connection between cancer rates and TVA’s coal ash pits cannot be proven, TVA should not be planning to just leave the coal ash where it is, and it should not ignore the contamination.

It’s clear that neither Alabama Power nor TVA plans to properly close their coal ash pits. ADEM should require both utilities to remove their ash to lined landfills away from waterways and in a manner that doesn’t disproportionately impact communities of color and low-income communities that have historically borne the brunt of pollution. We will continue pressing them to do so.

Will states begin incorporating ELGs into NPDES permits in the Southeast?

Source: Waterkeeper Alliance

Over 23 percent of critical water pollution permits in the Southeast are out of date. In states like Georgia, Florida, and Alabama, nearly all of these permits are overdue and urgently need to be updated in order to protect public health and the environment.

Georgia: Sierra Club authored, and SACE signed (along with nine other public interest groups) a letter to the state’s Environmental Protection Division (EPD) urging the agency to issue new NPDES permits for Georgia Power’s coal plants that reflect the toxic heavy metal pollution limits in the ELG rule. All the permits are currently overdue. Additionally, we asked EPD to take comments for at least 60 days before finalizing draft permits and to engage stakeholders in the process of establishing timelines for compliance. It’s far past time for EPD to ensure Georgians are protected from pollutants like mercury and arsenic discharged from Georgia Power’s plants.

Florida: Sierra Club authored and SACE signed (along with 11 other public interest groups) a letter to Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) requesting that it ensure that Florida’s utilities bring all of Florida’s power plants into compliance with EPA’s ELG rules as soon as possible. Three of Florida’s plants, including CD McIntosh, are not covered under the NPDES permit system but must meet ELG requirements for their coal ash liquid waste. The letter urged DEP to ensure these plants are bringing their waste treatment strategies into compliance as soon as possible.

Alabama: All of Alabama Power and TVA’s NPDES permits in Alabama are overdue, meaning ADEM is failing to do its best to protect the state’s waters from toxic coal ash pollution. We urge ADEM to address these expired permits as soon as possible and ensure they contain the latest ELG requirements.

Coal-fired power plants have a huge impact on water resources. They pull water in from lakes, rivers, and streams for steam generation to produce electricity. They also use the water to transport toxic-laden ash from coal boilers and waste from pollution controls out to holding pits, which are often unlined and sitting beside our rivers and streams.

The contaminated water is later discharged into waterways. Through the Clean Water Act, state environmental agencies issue permits that are part of the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (“NPDES”). The NPDES permit system is a linchpin of the Clean Water Act. Periodic updates to their technology requirements and limitations on toxic water pollution are supposed to reduce and eventually eliminate toxic industrial pollution into the waters of the US.

EPA recently updated the Effluent Limitation Guidelines (ELGs) for power plants which provide strict new standards that will greatly limit dangerous liquid discharges from coal ash at power plants across the southeast. State regulators must incorporate these limits into power plant NPDES permits as soon as possible and by 2023 at the absolute latest. However, environmental regulators in all three states are failing to require these critical updates in a timely manner.

What’s next?

There are many complicated issues associated with coal ash closure, and every state and utility share similarities and important differences. One common theme among all these stories is that we need our regulatory agencies to challenge utilities and require compliance with federal and state laws in order to protect our communities and the beauty of our states. We’ll be monitoring these stories in 2017, so keep your eyes peeled for updates.

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