Despite new coal-ash spill, EPA will stick to semi-tough approach

A Duke Energy coal-ash facility accidentally poured 100,000 cubic feet of muck this week into the Dan River on the North Carolina-Virginia border, turning it gray. The EPA is likely to tighten disposal rules on coal ash, but it won't designate it 'hazardous.'

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    Didi Fung, a contractor for the Environmental Protection Agency, collects water samples from the Dan River as state and federal environmental officials continue their investigations of a spill of coal ash in Eden, N.C., earlier this week. The Environmental Protection Agency is due to decide whether to designate coal ash as hazardous in December.
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When a pipe burst at a coal ash site owned by Duke Energy this week, it didn’t just send 100,000 cubic yards of muck oozing into the Dan River that straddles the Virginia and North Carolina borders. It also triggered a sharp debate as to how the byproduct from burning coal should be federally regulated.

The central question before the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is whether to change the status of coal ash from being a “solid waste” to a “hazardous waste.” At stake is not only the size of federal fines of coal-ash spills, but also potentially the fate of a multibillion-dollar industry that recycles nearly half of America’s coal ash into products such as drywall and cement. After more than five years of mulling it over, the agency has now agreed to issue proposals on Dec. 19, 2014.

The coal industry is hoping Congress will step in and write rules that would trump the EPA’s proposed rules.

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 “Congress can develop the framework for managing coal ash more quickly and more effectively than EPA,” says the Edison Electric Institute, which points out that 40 percent of all coal-combustion residuals are recycled.

But that seems unlikely given that it would be nearly impossible to win majorities in both chambers and get President Obama to sign such a law. In any case, Mr. Obama and the EPA have already expressed sympathy with that reuse argument. On Friday, the EPA reiterated that the recycling of coal ash was safe.

Instead, the administration is likely to extend an olive branch to industry and choose to make more incremental changes – toughening federal disposal standards, but also letting states maintain a partial leadership role. Coal-friendly states want to take full command but give the EPA a voice. 

This week’s accident at Duke is the second major spill of coal ash in five years. In December 2008, a dike burst at a Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) facility near Kingston, Tenn., where 5.4 million cubic yards of the byproduct poured into rivers and neighborhoods. The EPA had said that spill caused $3 billion of damage and is among the worst environmental disasters in the United States.

If the byproduct is regulated as a hazardous material, the EPA estimates it would cost $1.5 billion a year. If it is kept as a solid waste, compliance cost would still rise by $600 million – to comply with tougher disposal methods. Industry claims the costs of reclassification would be much higher. (By way of comparison, the TVA alone is spending more than a $1 billion to clean up after the 2008 spill.)

There’s a market threat, too. If the byproduct is reclassified as a hazardous waste, it could stigmatize the products that use it, drying up the recycling market and boosting the amount of refuse that must be handled and dispensed.

Coal ash is disposed of either as a liquid that goes into large surface impoundments or as a solid that is placed into landfills. The TVA, which had used the liquid disposal method at its Kingston Fossil Plant, now says that it will stop impounding "wet ash." Instead, it will convert it to dry ash and bury it in places with liners while also monitoring the ground water – something that the EPA says could become mandatory for all such sites.

Coal-burning power plants consume 1 billion tons of coal each year, says Earthjustice. That equates to the production of 140 million tons of coal in the form of fly ash, bottom ash, scrubber sludge, and boiler slag. About 200 coal ash impoundments are now in existence. The EPA has reviewed the issue, noting that 49 coal ash sites in 12 states are considered “high hazard,” which means a failure there could result in loss of life. It also identified 71 other sites that it says are responsible for the leakage of heavy metals into the groundwater.

As for Duke’s spill (think of a block of muck the size of a football field and more than 60 feet tall): “Their waste turned the Dan River completely gray and the plume continues to move into Virginia where downstream public drinking-water providers are attempting to filter out the coal ash waste before finished, treated water is sent to families and businesses,” says Donna Lisenby, global coal campaign coordinator for Waterkeeper Alliance. 

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