The catastrophic failure of a retaining wall near Knoxville, Tenn., last month has shined a spotlight on the lack of regulation of toxic coal ash from power plants. Some 1 billion gallons of coal sludge flooded at least a dozen homes in a 400-acre area on Dec. 22, 2008 (see Xpress online posts “Coal Slurry for a Tennessee Christmas” and “HuffPo: Arsenic 35 to 300 Times Drinking Water Standard After Tenn. Coal Ash Disaster”).
“We actually have stronger regulations for basic municipal trash [landfills] than for coal-ash combustible waste products,” notes Chandra Taylor, an attorney with the North Carolina office of the Southern Environmental Law Center.
In the state’s nearly 400-page statute detailing how solid waste must be managed, there’s a one-line exemption for the ash that’s left over when coal is burned to create energy, says Taylor. Coal ash contains a mix of substances, ranging from silica to arsenic. The latter element is carcinogenic—particularly when inhaled or ingested—according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
And though landfills must be lined to prevent such toxic chemicals from leaching out and contaminating ground and surface waters, coal-ash ponds are exempt. The state law also includes detailed guidelines for where landfills can be located (no floodplains, for example). But coal-ash ponds face no such restrictions—and like the power plants that produce the ash, the on-site ponds are usually located near water.
There’s another twist in the issue. “Stronger air regulations have caused a greater quantity of coal ash to be produced and, largely, stored on-site in ponds,” says Taylor. There are perhaps a dozen or more of them in North Carolina, including one active one in Buncombe County: the 480-million-gallon pond at Progress Energy’s Lake Julian plant along the French Broad River in Skyland.
“Our ash ponds are operating within all local, state and federal regulations,” Progress Energy spokesperson Scott Sutton reports. One pond is inactive, he notes, and it’s been converted into a wetland that filters wastewater from the plant. Earthen dams contain both ponds, which aren’t lined. But current regulations don’t require it, says Sutton, and the EPA doesn’t classify coal ash as a hazardous material (see Xpress blog post “Progress Energy Says Asheville Coal Ash Ponds Safe”).
The federal agency considered placing stricter regulations on coal ash in 2000 but backed off, says Taylor. “Because there are no minimum regulations [set] by the EPA, there’s a patchwork of regulations at the state level,” she explains.
In North Carolina, oversight is spread among various divisions of the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources. A key point is whether the ash is wet- or dry-stored. Active, “dry” coal-ash sites—regulated by the Division of Waste Management—“are lined and have been for the last 10 years,” staffer Cathy Ackroyd reports. But the Skyland plant falls mainly under the Division of Water Quality, because the coal ash is wet-stored, like the waste at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston plant.
That’s “a big loophole,” says French Broad Riverkeeper Hartwell Carson, adding that the regulatory maze poses a conundrum: Coal-ash ponds don’t have to be lined, but they’re not supposed to contaminate ground or surface waters. “It was a big deal when [Progress Energy] installed new scrubbers a few years ago to keep these toxins out of the air, but they’re still there in the coal ash,” notes Carson, who works for RiverLink, an Asheville-based nonprofit. And while he lauds the company’s wetland project as another way to reduce toxic emissions, “The byproducts [of burning coal] can definitely leach out and contaminate ground water,” he stresses.
Sutton, however, points to Progress Energy’s participation in a voluntary ground-water monitoring program: Every six months, the company collects samples on-site, tests them and reports the results to state officials. (Xpress is reviewing the latest reports.)
But that doesn’t satisfy the Tennessee residents affected by the Kingston spill, or environmentalists such as Taylor and the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy representatives who testified before a U.S. Senate committee recently.
“If there were minimum [federal] requirements, that would be progress,” says Taylor. The government should mandate composite liners, comprehensive monitoring and site restrictions for coal-ash ponds, environmental groups maintain. There should also be clear guidelines on how to deal with spills and other problems, Taylor asserts.
In 2000, the U.S. Department of Energy estimated the industry’s cost of implementing such requirements at about $5 billion a year. But no standards were adopted, due in part to industry pressure, and by 2007, the estimated cost had climbed to $11 billion per year.
The cost of cleaning up the Tennessee spill has yet to be determined.
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