The Green Scene: One lump or two

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”).

Monitored and safe? Progress Energy’s Lake Julian plant in Skyland operates a coal-ash pond similar to the one that spilled 1 billion gallons of toxic sludge 40 miles west of Knoxville last month. Photo by Jason Sandford

“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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About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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One thought on “The Green Scene: One lump or two

  1. Terry

    Of the money we have seen thrown around thus far let me ask you this, that 168 billion that our country borrowed to give away to us in the form of an “economic stimulus package” …did it do a darn thing to create jobs or stimulate our economy? NO, nothing. And we borrowed the money from China.

    This past year the high cost of gas nearly destroyed our economy and society. More people lost jobs and homes as a direct result of that than any other factor in our history.

    Fannie and Freddie continue to get all the blame. Of all the homes I have seen lost in my area SW FL and believe me I have seen many, none were due to an adjustable mortgage. They were due to lack of work.

    Families went broke at the pump alone. Then added to that most saw record rate hikes at their utility companies. The high cost of fuel resulted in higher production and shipping costs that were passed on to the consumer, in most cases higher prices for smaller packaging.

    Consumers tightened their belts, cut back, went out to eat less or stopped totally. Drove around on tires that needed replacing longer, some even quit buying medicines they really need.Unfortunately cutting back and spending less results in even more layoffs. A real economical catch-22.

    And, as we are doing the happy dance around the lower prices at the pumps OPEC is planning to cut production to raise prices. They are even getting Russia in on the cutbacks. Oil is finite. We have used up the easy to get to reserves already. It will run out one day.

    We have so much available to us. Solar and Wind are free sources of energy. Of course to get the harnessing process set up is somewhat costly it is still free energy.

    It would cost the equivalent of 60 cents per gallon to charge and drive an electric car. The electricity to charge the car could be generated by solar or wind at least in part and in most cases totally.

    If all gasoline cars, trucks, and suv’s instead had plug-in electric drive trains, the amount of electricity needed to replace gasoline is about equal to the estimated wind energy potential of the state of North Dakota. What a powerful resources we have neglected.

    Jeff Wilson has a profound new book out called The Manhattan Project of 2009 Energy Independence Now. Powerful, powerful book! Also, if you think electric cars are way out there in some futuristic lala land please check out the web site for a company Better Place. they are setting up infrastructures in San Francisco, San Jose and Oakland as well as the state of Hawaii to accommodate electric car use.

    I think we need to rethink all these bailouts and stimulus packages. We need to use some of these billions to bail America out of it’s dependence on foreign oil. Create clean cheap energy, create millions of badly needed new green collar jobs and get out from under the grip foreign oil has on us. What a win -win situation that would be for America at large

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