Coal Ash Waste: Where We Are Now and Where We Still Have to Go
The story of coal ash regulation in the United States is full of surprises and plot reversals. Here’s a recap.
- Coal ash is the stuff that’s left over after coal has been burned. We produce about 125 million short tons of it each year, and about 60 percent of that waste is dumped into landfills and waste impoundments, euphemistically known as coal ash storage ponds. (A pond sounds nice, but you won’t find fish there and forget about swimming in one because it’d be loaded with arsenic, toxic metals, and radioactivity.)
- Despite its toxicity, coal ash is unregulated in the United States — but it was almost regulated in the spring of 2000 when the Clinton administration announced intentions to designate coal ash a hazardous pollutant. Such a change would kick in regulatory control over its disposal.
- But right after deciding to designate coal ash as a hazardous pollutant, the Clinton administration decided not to. Instead, EPA was instructed to develop rules to regulate coal ash as a non-hazardous pollutant. I guess that would make it a non-hazardous (hazardous) pollutant or maybe a (hazardous) non-hazardous pollutant.
- Those regulations never came to be because the request came just as the clock on the Clinton administration ran out.
- Enter the Bush administration. No regulations. I guess Bush’s EPA just plain forgot.
- Eight years later, in late December 2008, coal ash suddenly made the front pages — a spill from a storage pond at the Kingston power plant in Tennessee dumped 5.4 million cubic yards of toxic sludge into the Emory River and its environs.
- Note to government: maybe we need to do something about coal ash now???
- Flash forward: March 2009. Obama in the White House. EPA issues information request letters to U.S. power plants asking for reports on the safety of their impoundments. EPA also hints that it will once again assess whether coal ash should be regulated as a hazardous pollutant. (See EPA press release, NYT article.)
Key Among EPA’s Queries: Do Your Dams Pose a Threat?
Among the requests [pdf] EPA posed to coal facilities was this fundamental one: rate the potential hazard for each storage unit relative to government criteria, which assign dams “high,” “significant,” “low,” or “less-than-low” ratings based on the risk that a dam failure would harm people, property, and/or the environment.
The Coal Ash Storage Risk Assessment Findings, So Far
Last month, EPA designated 44 coal ash ponds as being “high hazard.” At first the agency would not reveal the locations of the 44 sites, but after a Freedom of Information Act nudge, EPA reversed course and identified them.
|EPA High Hazard Coal Ash Waste Sites, by the Sierra Club|
Sierra Club has Google-mapped the 44 “high hazard” waste impoundment sites along with the socioeconomic standing of their surrounding communities. Check it out — maybe your neighborhood is one of the lucky hosts of a high-hazard coal ash storage pond.
Now Do We Know What We Need To? You Be the Judge.
The 44 sites, culled from a total of 427 sites reviewed, are located at 26 power plants across 11 states. Their high-hazard status means that a failure at one of them would “probably result in the loss of human life.” It’s important to note that this rating pertains not to the integrity of individual retaining walls or dams that hold back the millions of tons of coal waste stored in the United States, but rather to what might be in the path of a coal ash spill should a unit fail.
What we don’t yet know: are any of these 44 units (or the other 383 that were reviewed) actually in danger of failing?
EPA’s Next Step: Reviewing the Facilities With the High-Hazard Ponds
Out of the 26 electric utilities with the 44 high-hazard waste ponds, EPA is in the process of reviewing its own site assessments of 11 of the facilities and will be reviewing state inspections for the remaining 15. Presumably this review process will shed light on the integrity and safety of the 44 storage ponds.
Is the List of 44 Comprehensive?
I think probably not. For example, without a single Tennessee Valley Authority facility getting a high-hazard rating, it is not clear that TVA’s Kingston plant would have even made the list. This, in spite of the fact that when its storage unit failed, homes were pushed off foundations, houses were partially buried, and lives put in danger. (Luckily there were no serious injuries.)
Another interesting tidbit: Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection notes that 11 of the state’s coal ash waste impoundments are large enough to require dam permits and that five of those are rated high-hazard dams. Yet, EPA lists only one of these waste ponds — the ‘Little’ Blue Run impoundment — on its high-hazard list.
Somehow I don’t think this list of 44 is the end of the story.
Larger Issue of Coal Waste Yet To Be Addressed
The “big picture” question yet to be answered by EPA is how to classify and safely dispose of coal ash. Back in March when the agency announced it would craft rules to ensure the safety of the nearly 1,300 waste landfills and impoundments across the country, it also said that it would move “forward quickly to develop regulations to address the management of coal combustion residuals.”
The next plot twist in the saga: Which comes first? EPA’s draft rules or December 22 — the anniversary of the Kingston spill?