The battle for coal ash regulation continues as environmental groups accuse the government of stalling a decision that could see the byproduct classified as a hazardous substance.
Coal-fired power plants generate almost 140 million tons of coal ash, scrubber sludge, and other combustion wastes every year throughout the country. The waste contains arsenic, lead, mercury, and other toxic metals that have contaminated water at some coal-ash disposal sites at up to 145 times federally permissible levels.
Currently coal ash is unregulated and a major new report from the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) and Earthjustice says the delay is irresponsible.
The report identifies 31 additional coal-ash contamination sites in 14 states, which, when added to the 70 in the EPA's justification for the pending rule, brings the total of coal-fired power plant waste storage sites with poisoned water to 101.
“These unregulated [coal ash waste] sites present a clear and present danger to public health and the environment,” stated Lisa Evans, senior administrative counsel of Earthjustice in a press release. “If law and science are to guide our most important environmental decisions, as EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] Administrator Lisa Jackson has promised, we need to regulate these hazards before they get much worse.”
The draft regulation ruling by EPA is currently sitting with the federal Office of Management and Budget (OMB), “where an avalanche of lobbyists hope it will stay buried," the EIP/Earthjustice report says.
The EPA promised new regulation standards before the end of 2009, after a massive spill in Kingston, Tennessee, attracted national attention.
The 1 billion gallon spill of coal ash sludge poured down a hillside in December 2008, wiping out homes, poisoning rivers, and contaminating coves and residential drinking waters over a 300-acre area, according to an article on the Earthjustice Web site.
The EPA said the spill is regarded as one of the worst environmental disasters of its kind in history.
"While the catastrophic spill at TVA's Kingston plant has become the poster child for the damage that coal ash can wreak, there are hundreds of leaking sites throughout the United States where the damage is deadly, but far less conspicuous,” Jeff Stant, director, Coal Combustion Waste Initiative, Environmental Integrity Project said in a press release. “This problem needs an immediate national solution—in the form of federally enforceable standards that protect every community near coal ash dump sites.”
The report cites examples of contamination including a boron-and-sulfate-contaminated drinking water supply that sickened people in Montana and had to be abandoned. Major arsenic pollution from a coal ash dump that contributed to a Great Lake Bay became an "International Area of Concern." Other examples include a mile-long plume of contamination in Florida; mercury contamination of residential wells in Tennessee; and selenium levels in West Virginia surface waters at 4 to 5 times what is permitted under federal law.
EPA's 2007 risk assessment estimated that up to 1 in 50 residents living near certain wet ash ponds could get cancer due to arsenic contamination of drinking water. This represents a risk 2,000 times the EPA’s regulatory goal, the EPI/Earthjustice report states.
Last month the EPA released action plans developed by 22 electric utility facilities with coal ash impoundments, describing the measures the facilities are taking to make their impoundments safer.
“EPA is committed to making communities across the country safer places to live,” Mathy Stanislaus, assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response said in a press release. “The information we are releasing today shows that we continue to make progress in our efforts to prevent future coal ash spills.”
Most of the 40 impoundments the EPA assessed have a rating of “high” or “significant” hazard potential, indicating the potential for harm in the event of impoundment failure, the EPA statement said. A high hazard potential rating means if an impoundment fails, it can cause loss of human life. A significant hazard potential rating means impoundment failure can cause economic loss, environmental damage, or damage to infrastructure.
Currently, around 45 percent of fly ash is recycled, and the American Coal Ash Association (ACAA) aims to boost the use of byproducts in concrete by 50 percent, to 18.6 million tons in 2011. The coal industry is hailing the use of coal ash as one of the greatest recycling success stories. It is used for making concrete, carpet backing, and wall board for construction.
The ACAA has partnered with other coal industries and the EPA to promote the use of recycling the coal ash—creating an organization called the Coal Combustion Products Partnership (C2P2).
The partnership is a direct conflict of interest, says Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, an environmental advocacy group. He said it will be difficult for the EPA to make an unbiased decision while being wed to the coal industry—an $11 billion to $13 billion industry.
Contaminated Sites and Health Issues
- Contamination from the Colstrip site in Montana sickened people, forced the closure of the drinking water well at a nearby Moose Lodge, and triggered a $25 million settlement with affected residents.
- At the Gibson site in Indiana, Duke Energy is supplying bottled water to residents of East Mount Carmel.
- Contamination of several municipal drinking supply wells from ash at the Phillips Orion site in Pennsylvania ruined residents‘ hot water heaters, which some residents had to replace every year for several years, and forced closure of the plant‘s ash pond.
- Near the Trans Ash Landfill in Tennessee, a new water supply was piped to a resident after mercury levels in her well were measured at more than five times the drinking water standard.SOURCE: Out of Control: Mounting Damages from Coal Ash Waste Sites report.
SOURCE: Out of Control: Mounting Damages from Coal Ash Waste Sites report.