8 Dec 2014

Risks of utility coal ash pit accidents growing despite new rule starting December 19

Written by Jim Pierobon

If someone were to tell you that neither a state nor the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has ever established regulations for disposing of coal ash waste by utilities, would you believe him/her?

You’d be inclined to say no, right? Heck, there are regulations for disposing of household garbage, so why not coal ash waste?

Unfortunately that, indeed, is the reality.


This coal sludge from the Tennessee Valley Authority broke through levees 3 days before Christmas in 2008. CREDIT: The New York Times

That reality is set to change December 19. The EPA is due to release first-ever Subtitle D regulations under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act pertaining to ash left over from the burning of coal to generation electricity.

The December 19 deadline is the result of a consent decree reached back in January and spawned by a lawsuit filed in 2012 by environmental groups led by Earth Justice, Appalachian Voices and other plaintiffs.  Environmental lawyers say it won’t affect existing “legacy” coal ash dumps but will subject utilities to first-ever requirements going forward.

Coal combustion waste poses a cancer risk 900 times higher than acceptable levels – U.S. EPA

Seems odd that this EPA, four years into President Obama’s first term, needed to be legally required to act, especially since about 140 millions of tons of ash is dumped along major waterways throughout the Southeast U.S.  every year. The ash, which becomes a heavy sludge, or slurry, once it’s exposed to moisture, can break through levees and flood waterways that feed public drinking water systems and threaten wildlife habitats.  A report by the EPA found that unlined coal combustion waste ponds pose a cancer risk 900 times above acceptable levels.

Earthen berms, levees or dikes designed to contain the coal ash sludge have collapsed allowing it to flow into waterways, thereby threatening public water supplies and wildlife.  Even as the slurry exists in hundreds of ponds throughout the Southeast U.S., generally they are unlined. As a result, arsenic, mercury, thallium, selenium, and other dangerious contaminants have been leaching into the rivers and the underlying groundwater for decades, according to the Southern Environmental Law Center.

Coal ash waste didn’t pierce the public’s consciousness until . . . .

Without any regulations governing how to dispose of coal ash, utilities have pursued the cheapest solution, at least in the short term: because coal (and nuclear) plants use lots of water, it seemed a no-brainer – despite a growing chorus of warnings — to dispose of the coal ash next door to the power plant. Why ship it elsewhere if you don’t have to?

Ah, but that was before coal ash disposal drew heightened scrutiny three days before Christmas in 2008. A giant pond near Gatlin, Tennessee containing coal slurry from the Kingston power plant operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority burst through a dike into the Clinch River in Roane County (see photo, above). More than 1 billion tons of slurry fouled the river and destroyed homes (photo) close to the broken dike. It was the worst rupture of a coal slurry pit in U.S. history.

Hand from Dan River coal ash spill CREDIT AP

Amy Adams, North Carolina campaign coordinator with Appalachian Voices, shows her hand after dipping it into the Dan River after the coal ash spill in early 2014. CREDIT Gerry Broome, Associated Press

Even with such a wake-up call, this past February, a coal ash pit operated by Duke Energy near Eden, North Carolina ruptured dumping than 80,000 tons of coal ash to spill into and spread along 70 miles the Dan River which straddles the Virginia-North Carolina border. The Dan River is the drinking water source for many communities and is a primary feeder to Kerr Lake Reservoir.

Dealing with legacy coal ash waste in Tennessee

So what to do about existing coal ash dumps which are not subject to the upcoming regulations from the EPA?  That herculean task has been taken up by attorneys at the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) and other conservation / environmental non-profits. While there has been some notable progress to date, the risk of more ruptures grows in dozens of locations especially throughout the Southeast U.S.

As if the Kingston tragedy wasn’t enough, SELC has filed a notice of intent against TVA for coal ash at another coal-fired generating station:  its Gallatin Plant which is polluting the Cumberland River. The Cumberland River provides drinking water for 1.2 million residents downstream from leaking pits in Gallatin, Nashville, Rutherford County, and Williamson County. This site contains 55 years – that’s right, 55 years — of coal ash waste in unlined, unprotected pits. It’s been contaminating nearby waterways at hundreds of thousands of times the legal limits. EPA has rated the dams at these sites as needing improvement and posing a significant hazard to the surrounding communities should a rupture occur.

Dealing with legacy waste in South Carolina

In South Carolina, legal action brought by the SELC resulted in an agreement from South Carolina Electric & Gas to clean up coal ash lagoons at its Wateree plant southeast of Columbia. The utility has made a binding commitment remove all of the 2.4 million+ tons of coal combustion waste from the impoundments into the Catawba-Wateree River.

SELC legal action also resulted in an agreement from Santee Cooper in South Carolina to stop coal ash contamination from its Grainger plant near Myrtle Beach. The state-owned utility stores 650,000 tons of ash in the plant’s waste pools, which have been discharging arsenic into the Waccamaw River upstream from drinking water intakes and the Waccamaw National Wildlife Refuge.

Dealing with legacy waste in Virginia

In Virginia, SELC uncovered decades of coal ash pollution leaking into the Potomac River from Dominion’s Possum Point Power Station in Prince William County, south and west of Washington, DC .  Three unlined, uncapped coal ash ponds there were been abandoned by Dominion without monitoring or remediation – here we go again — almost 50 years ago. SELC found evidence of these unpermitted ponds were leaking toxic heavy metals.

Dominion and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) have known for more than a decade about ongoing pollution of heavy metals up to 127 times state groundwater standards from two permitted coal ash ponds, according to the SELC. The SELC asserts that neither Dominion nor DEQ has made any attempt to stop the contamination; it’s working to make sure Dominion is held responsible for cleaning up this waterway with significant historic, commercial, and recreational value.

Dealing with legacy waste in North Carolina

Citizen groups in North Carolina for years have been pressing Duke Energy to clean up 32 coal ash disposal sites in the Tar Heel state. State environmental officials stepped in with the backing of Governor Pat McCrory and asserted their regulatory authority before the Eden spill to negotiate a settlement  reportedly involving fines totaling a whopping $99,111. Why so low? I forgot to mention that McCrory worked for Duke Energy for 28 years.

That settlement, which included no requirement that Duke remove the coal ash or stop polluting the groundwater, was put on hold after the Eden spill. The state has since created a commission to chart a solution and recommend how to pay for it. Duke Energy, a $50 billion company, has said it would cost $10 billion to move coal ash from all of its sites.

60 Mins on Dan River spill

CBS’ 60 Minutes on December 7, 2014 spotlighted the Eden Spill (into the Dan River). CREDIT 60 Minutes

Recycling coal ash can fetch $40 per ton to make concrete

Utilities have long been trying to find commercial uses for coal ash. About half of that 140 million tons of coal ash created each year is recycled for uses that federal officials deem safe – as long as the toxic materials are encapsulated in finish products such as concrete and cinder blocks. Duke Energy reportedly has sold some of its coal ash for as much as $40 a ton. That can cover at least some of the cost of hauling it to a lined disposal facility.

To help Southerners find out more about risks to their communities, SELC and its partners launched SoutheastCoalAsh.org, a website that provides an interactive map and database of about 100 coal-fired power plants and their coal ash impoundments. EPA rates a number of these sites as “high hazard”, meaning that a failure like TVA’s Kingston disaster would likely cause fatalities.

How many more coal ash pit ruptures will it take to compel action by governments and/or utilities? That is an question we may still be far from answering.

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