Coal-ash waste poses risk across the nation
Hundreds of landfills and slurry ponds – like the one that failed in Tennessee – are dotted across the US, endangering communities and water supplies.
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But “coal ash is not in equilibrium with the environment,” Geo-Hydro’s Mr. Norris says. “It reacts quite strongly with any water that comes in contact with it. I’ve read the inspection reports from the TVA facility. It’s pretty clear this is material that is internally degrading.” (On January 9, a second spill of waste from a TVA coal-fired power plant came at its Widows Creek facility in northeast Alabama. This time it was not coal ash escaping, TVA officials said, but about 10,000 gallons of gypsum from a cooling-system pond, the Knoxville News Sentinel reported.)Skip to next paragraph
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Averting the problem might have cost one-tenth as much as cleanup
At the Kingston facility, TVA officials did not pursue a $25 million proposal to dry out the sludge and ship it to a properly lined landfill, despite evidence that the lagoon dam was weakening, according to published reports. Instead they turned to less-costly alternatives. Would tighter regulation have helped?
Maybe. But in the 28 years since Congress enacted 1980’s Solid Waste Disposal Act and required the EPA to report back on whether to regulate coal combustion waste (CCW), EPA attempts to regulate the material have fallen before vigorous utility industry lobbying, lawyer Evans says.
In 2000, for instance, the EPA determined that CCW did not warrant regulation as hazardous waste. It subsequently cut most funding to develop national regulations and instead began drawing up voluntary guidelines, Evans says.
Since then, however, the EPA has “collected significant new data and new analyses,” says Matthew Hale, director of EPA’s Office of Solid Waste, in a statement responding to Monitor queries. EPA is now analyzing data gathered in its 2007 study, he said, “and will consider this information as we continue to follow up on the regulatory determination on the management of coal combustion waste.”
Utility group says better state regulations will suffice
A utility industry spokesman says it has been joined by many others, including states, to lobby against federal hazardous waste regulation. State regulation is working, despite the Kingston collapse, according to Jim Roewer, executive director of the Utility Solid Waste Activities Group, an industry trade association. “A lot of people are claiming that if coal ash is not regulated as a hazardous waste at the federal level, then it’s not regulated,” he says. “States do have programs, and they aren’t static and have become more stringent over time.... Tennessee and other states will be reviewing their programs” in light of this spill.
Priorities for solving the problem are clear, environmentalists say
But environmentalists say the solution is obvious: Phase out all wet storage of toxic coal ash; immediately inspect and begin monitoring coal-ash storage and disposal units; begin federal regulation of all coal-ash storage and disposal by year’s end.
This daunting problem may be solved by putting coal ash in dry, specially-lined landfills to keep water out. Cleaning up the Kingston spill will cost 10 times what it would have cost to dry and ship the ash to a proper landfill, Evans says. “It’s a problem that has a clear solution,” she says. “We just need to decide to do it.”