Coal Ash Spills Could Happen at Dumps Across USA

WASHINGTON, DC, January 7, 2008 (ENS) – Nearly 100 coal ash dumps across the United States pose similar or even greater potential dangers than the eastern Tennessee site that spilled a billion gallons of toxic sludge and contaminated water last month, finds a report released today by environmentalists.

The study warns that the Bush administration has turned a blind eye to the risks of coal ash ponds, bowing to industry wishes and leaving the sites free from federal regulation and largely unmonitored.

The December 22, 2008 disaster at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston coal-fired power plant highlighted the “inexcusable lack of regulation of this kind of disposal,” said Eric Schaeffer, director of the Environmental Integrity Project, which produced the new study.

EIP analyzed industry data submitted to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on the presence of six heavy metals – arsenic, chromium, lead, nickel, selenium and thallium – in coal ash ponds similar to the one that ruptured at the Kingston site.

Heavy equipment is dwarfed by the coal ash spill from TVA’s Kingston Fossil power plant. January 4, 2009 (Photo courtesy TVA)

Analysts found nearly 100 sites, including the one in Kingston, where more than a total of 124 million pounds of coal ash containing the six metals have been disposed between 2000 and 2006.

Nearby communities are not just at risk from huge spills like the one in Tennessee, Schaeffer said, but are at perhaps even greater risk from the steady, long-term leaching of toxic metals into drinking water supplies.

The report finds that a total of 13 states have at least three coal ash dumps on the 50-worst toxic chemical lists.

Indiana tops the list with 11 sites, followed by Ohio with eight. Kentucky and Alabama have seven sites, Georgia and North Carolina have six each, while West Virginia and Tennessee have four. Florida, Illinois, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wyoming each have three sites.

It found the TVA’s Kingston site was in the top 50 for all of the heavy metals except for thallium.

“Our analysis confirms that this problem is truly national in scope and that Tennessee may end up only being a warning sign of much more trouble to come,” Schaeffer said.

EIP’s report recommends the phaseout of all wet storage of toxic coal ash, immediate inspection and monitoring of existing sites and federal regulation of all coal ash storage and disposal by the end of 2009.

“This open pit disposal of toxic waste has got to end,” said Christopher Irwin, a staff attorney with United Mountain Defense, an environmental group located in Knoxville, Tennessee

The report comes as the Tennessee community of Harriman is struggling to come to terms with the devastation left by the spill, which occurred after the retaining wall of a 40-acre coal ash pond ruptured at the Kingston site.

The spill dumped some 5.4 million cubic yards of ashy sludge and contaminated water across 400 acres at the confluence of the Emory and Clinch Rivers, burying 12 homes and other buildings in more than four feet of sludge.

Federal and private analyses have found elevated levels of an array of heavy metals, including arsenic levels of more than 149 times the maximum allowable levels.

A barge-mounted vacuum is used to remove coal ash from the Emory River (Photo courtesy TVA)

TVA officials have suggested that cold weather and heavy rains are to blame for the spill, but there is evidence they knew of structural problems for several years and failed to act.

A coalition of local residents and environmental groups sent notice to TVA on Tuesday that they intend to sue the federal government utility for negligence and will ask a federal court to oversee the cleanup and remediation of the contaminated area.

“This catastrophic spill was a colossal tragedy, and the Tennessee Valley Authority could have avoided this disaster had it taken its responsibilities seriously,” said Bruce Nilles of the Sierra Club, which announced the lawsuit.

“This massive spill reminds us that coal is not clean, and coal is not cheap,” he said.

But cost is a major factor driving decisions on how to store coal ash, as utilities have been largely free to choose how they discard or store the waste. Federal regulators have been considering the issue of coal ash disposal for nearly three decades, but have failed to take serious action or impose regulations on industry.

Although some of the residues of coal ash are used to make industrial products such as cement and wallboard, most of it is disposed of in landfills or mixed with water and stored in ponds or surface impoundments.

Wet storage of coal ash is attractive to industry as it is relatively cheap and often eliminates the need to transport the waste off-site. But the method is far from secure and many of these sites are not lined to protect toxic metals from leaching into water supplies.

“These sites leak all the time,” Schaeffer told reporters on a telephone press briefing.

There is also “no effort to go out and inspect” these sites, said Linda Evans, an attorney with Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law firm.

Driven by such concerns, environmentalists and public health advocates have pressed for the federal government to require coal ash be treated as hazardous waste and deposited into properly lined landfills.

In 2000, the EPA indicated it was ready to follow that advice and warned that many wet storage sites posed serious risks to public health and the environment.

But industry protested loudly, raising concerns about cost and suggesting that defining coal ash as hazardous waste could undermine efforts to recycle more of the material for industrial uses.

The EPA subsequently abandoned the effort and left regulation to the states.

“Most states have fallen down miserably on the job,” Evans told reporters.

After touring the TVA spill site last week, Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen said state inspectors would visit all coal-fired facilities in the state.

Environmentalists say the costs of safer storage pale in comparison to costs of cleanup and see the argument that stricter regulation would impede reuse of the material as a red herring.

Schaeffer said, “We can no longer afford to ignore this problem and we certainly can’t be content to just sit around and wait for the next Tennessee-style disaster to happen.”

The EIP report can be found here [].

By J.R. Pegg

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