Battle Against Coal Ash Starts Now or Never

Earlier this February in Eden, North Carolina, a major coal ash spill has raised the nation’s attention.  The coal ash was found leaking into a storm water discharge pipe buried under the pond and then spewed into the Dan River. As a consequence, 82,000 tons of toxic sledges into the Dan River, making it the third largest coal ash leak in the US history.

 Environmental Policy Blog 1st

Former NC NEDR administrator, now environmental coordinator of Appalachian Voice, Amy Adams demonstrates the coal ash in Dan River, NC. Sources: Associated Press

While the leakage was finally halted, contaminates level fallen to normal and federal investigation proceeding, we cannot let the story end here. The problem of coal ash demands public attention and need to be addressed timely by the government.

The convention is to store the coal ash waste either through impoundment or landfill, yet the Dan River Spill and the even more catastrophic spill in Kingston, Tennessee have demonstrated these methods are not so assuring. The increasing amount of coal ash storages is a growing concern around the nation. Neither impoundment nor landfill reduces the waste but instead creates sources of chronic problems or builds up risks of future catastrophe.

To solve the problem of coal ash, regulations should both aim on improving current storage standard and encouraging alternative handling methods. However, the very first step is to raise the salience of the problem, including both public as well as administrators’ awareness. The problem of coal ash had been historically grossly understated by public and even environmental regulators. With an initial estimation of 710 ponds in the nation, EPA conducted a survey under the request of two environmental groups in 2010, and found out there were actually more than 1100 ash ponds in the nation; 46% of those did not have liner to protect from leakage, another data previously unknown by EPA. The two coal ash ponds at Dan River are but 2 of the 44 Highly Hazardous Coal Ash Ponds identified by EPA in 2009. Immediate actions are required to avoid more serious accidents in future.

Besides, the identity of coal ash remains disputable in legislative context. Coal ash is currently considered as an exempted waste under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA).  Despite EPA was warranted the right to regulate coal ash as a solid waste after the 2000 amendment, it had never issued any regulation on coal ash. After the disastrous accident in Kingston Tennessee, the administration submitted two options to regulate coal ash as special waste or non-hazardous waste respectively. However, almost four years after the proposals, the final conclusion of the identity of coal ash is still lacking. Fortunately, once again thanks to pressures from environmental organizations, EPA signed a consent decree that it shall, by December 19, 2014, publish its final action revising. It would be interesting to see how the Dan River accident will influence EPA’s final decision.

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The Kingston, Tennessee Spill in 2008 was the largest coal ash incident in the United State, more than a billion US gallons of coal ash was spewed in consequence. Source: Wikipedia

In addition to improving safety of coal ash ponds and landfills, alternative methods should be considered to reduce the total amount of coal ashes. The market may generate innovative ideas, yet it requires regulation to ensure safety and promote pervasion. Indeed, business has introduced various solutions to reuse coal ash. Coal ash has been used and construction projects. Further, fly ash bricks, contrary to the common perspectives viewing coal ash as wastes and pollutants, have even been labeled as environmental by both waste recycling and emission reducing. Nevertheless, the amount of usage is substantially lower than the amount produced. Based on the report of the American Coal Ash Association (ACAA), even in 2012, when the percentage of recycle is at its highest, the nation had a net increase of 30 million tons of coal ash. Provided that the use of coal ash bricks is safe, it should be promoted to reduce the accumulation of coal ash and eventually reduce the total amount.

It is equally important though, to realize many of those proposals regarding coal ash may inspire new controversies, just as what was seen in the case of Chesapeake Golf Course. Given the potential health and environmental risk associated with coal ash, and its tight relation with the fossil fuel industry, policy design needs to incorporate rigorous safety standards and inspections to ensure the safety of usage. This issue may be further complicated by the EPA’s current effort identifying coal ash, as the industry may be hampered due to fear of litigation if the extra inspections are imposed on coal ash.