Tennessee spill revives coal ash controversy
A dike break released more than 5.4 million cubic yards of toxic sludge and put rivers downstream at risk.
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Residents are being cautioned against drinking tap or well water although Ms. Niles said the toxins had not yet been found near the water treatment plant near Kingston. John Moulton, spokesperson for the TVA, said the company is building an underwater rock wall at the base of the Emory River to catch sediment.Skip to next paragraph
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The bulk of the coal ash “is inert,” he said, adding that if higher than normal levels of metal were found in the water, it would be filtered out by the treatment plant.
As sampling continues, the disaster has renewed the debate over the efficiency of coal power and the EPA’s role in regulating storage and distribution of its waste.
At least half of all electrical power in the US is generated by coal-fired power plants, located mostly in the Southeast. In 2007, electric utilities and independent power producers consumed about 1 billion tons of coal, representing 93 percent of all coal produced in the US that year.
The high consumption results in about 125 million tons of waste, which is traditionally cooled and stored in landfills.
Critics say the EPA failed to create national standards for waste storage due to opposition from utility companies and the coal industry. With responsibility handed off to state agencies, standards vary widely, resulting in the phenomenon of “importing pollution” from a highly regulated state to one with lower standards, according to Carrie La Seur, president of Plains Justice, an environmental law center in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
“It’s really been a federal failure to regulate this waste stream that has resulted in this patchwork,” said Ms. La Seur. “You get ... a ‘race to the bottom.’ Every state has the perverse incentive to create the loosest regulation to attract whatever businesses are available.”
Because the EPA was reluctant to classify coal ash as hazardous during the Clinton administration, companies are not required to store coal ash in lined landfills. The Kingston facility stores its waste in unlined ponds with just a retaining wall separating it from the Emory River.
TVA’s Mr. Moulton said the company is reconsidering how coal ash is stored and disposed at the Kingston plant.
Due to the sheer volume of waste produced, the coal industry has been advocating recycling the material into backfill and building materials such as cement, bricks, or wallboard.
About 60 percent of the approximately 600 coal plants in the US are designed to recycle coal waste, unlike older plants like Kingston, says David Goss, executive director of the American Coal Ash Association. But only about 45 percent of coal ash gets reused.
“It’s not the norm yet,” said Mr. Goss, adding that that is likely to change as utility companies realize the revenue potential of marketing their waste for byproducts. However, it’s not clear if coal ash can be effectively recycled without leaching toxins into groundwater or the air.