The Green Scene: Keeping coal ash contained

Coal ash — a waste product of many power plants including the one overlooking Lake Julian in south Asheville — may be federally regulated for the first time: On May 4, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed changes to how the material is stored and monitored.

A smidgin of ash: In part due to a tragic dam collapse that released about a billion gallons of sludge containing coal ash from a Kingston, Tenn., plant in December 2008, the EPA has proposed regulating the material, a waste product of coal-fired power production. Photo courtesy of WNCA

As the federal agency gears up for a 90-day, public comment period, local environmentalists and a Progress Energy representative spoke to Xpress.

"The simple fact is that coal combustion waste, which contains a litany of toxic substances such as arsenic, lead and mercury, is not comparable to coffee grounds, banana peels and other household garbage," says Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

Progress Energy's Scott Sutton counters, "The EPA has evaluated the health safety of CCPs three times since 1980, and all three times the agency determined that these products should be regulated as non-hazardous."

Known as coal combustion products, the ash has typically been stored in unlined ponds (water is often used in the process that prevents most of the toxins from being released in the air). The storage practice received national attention in December 2008, when a Kingston, Tenn., dam broke at a TVA plant and released enough coal-ash slurry to destroy one nearby home, damage several others, cover about 300 acres of land and spill into the Emory and Clinch Rivers.

"A breach [here] could release millions of gallons of coal-ash slurry over the highway, into the [French Broad] River, and ultimately into the communities downstream," says Hartwell Carson of the Western North Carolina Alliance.

Pollutants found in coal ash have been detected in independent studies of ground water, surface water, and fish samples from areas near the Progress Energy plant, he claims. Carson has also observed material resembling coal ash in the sediment collected along the stream beside the Asheville Regional Airport, where the dried waste is being used as fill for a runway expansion project (coal ash and its derivatives are used in concrete, bowling balls and wallboard). Carson notes that Progress Energy has voluntarily tested groundwater around the plant for several years, recording 116 instances in which pollutants in the groundwater, including lead and mercury, exceeded state standards.

But Sutton cites the company's own testing from upstream and downstream of the plant: Fish from both locations reveal high levels of mercury. "To say that this plant is the source of the mercury levels in the fish, you'd have to show higher levels in the downstream fish. That just wasn't the case."

Up till now, coal combustion products have been exempt from the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), meaning that it's been up to individual states to determine how the material is treated and monitored. State regulations have been uniformly minimal, according to Chandra Taylor, senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, and enforcement has been spotty.

The EPA proposal offers two regulatory alternatives, Smith explains. One option would treat coal ash as a hazardous substance: Wet ash ponds would be phased out, tougher disposal and storage standards would apply, and there would be greater oversight by the EPA. The other option would be less rigorous, continuing to treat coal ash like common household waste, and power-plant operators would self-monitor their compliance.

Further, the less-strict option would not require plant operators to guarantee substantial funds to cover a failure. The stricter proposal would, however, and that financial commitment is a substantial piece of the regulatory muscle in the proposed regulations, say Smith and other environmentalists.

But Progress Energy "supports the regulation of coal combustion products as non-hazardous," Sutton states.

The company has already been taking steps to improve the local plant's containment of coal ash, he says. An EPA inspection in 2009 found that their active dam is structurally satisfactory, although it was listed with 44 others in the U.S. as high-hazard. That list identifies dams based on their location near human structures such as highways or buildings, Sutton explains. "It's a worst-case-scenario designation," he says.

However, an older, inactive dam at the lake Julian facility is slated for structural improvement once state permits are secured, a process that Sutton expects will take nine months. "If state studies indicate off-site impacts from our operations, we will work with the state to mitigate them," he adds.

With Asheville's needs for electricity growing, Sutton continues, "We're seeking a balanced strategy to meet energy demands." Progress Energy is investing about $1 billion dollars in emissions-control technology and wastewater treatment using natural organisms for its discharge water, he says.

"It's in our corporate culture statement to be good stewards of the environment."

For more information, go to the EPA Web site, http://bit.ly/cJwTbv.

Susan Andrew is a freelance writer and researcher based in Asheville.

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One thought on “The Green Scene: Keeping coal ash contained

  1. Eamon Martin

    Susan Andrew quotes Progress Energy spokesperson
    Scott Sutton confidently claiming, “The EPA has evaluated the health safety of CCPs three times since 1980, and all three times the agency determined that these products should be regulated as non-hazardous.”

    Since 1980? That may be so. But what Sutton failed to mention was that according to the most recent EPA tests conducted in December 2009, coal
    ash pollution can in fact easily be classified as hazardous waste. After introducing new testing procedures, the federal agency came up with some
    pretty shocking results:

    * Arsenic, a potent carcinogen, leached from one coal ash at 1,800 times the federal safe drinking water standard, more than 3 times the
    threshold of hazardous waste and over 76 times the level of previous leach tests;
    * Antimony, which causes heart, lung and stomach problems, leached from a coal ash at 1,800 times the federal safe drinking water
    standard and over 900 times the level of previous tests;
    * Chromium, which can cause cancer and stomach ailments, leached from one coal ash at a level 73 times the federal safe drinking water
    standard, over 1.5 times the hazardous waste threshold, and 124 times the level of previous leach tests; and
    * Selenium, which causes circulatory problems in humans and is a bioaccumulative toxin extremely deadly to fish, leached from one coal
    ash at nearly 600 times the federal drinking water standard, 29 times the hazardous waste threshold and nearly 66 times the level of previous leach tests.

    This study provoked environmental group Earthjustice to release a statement saying, “The new testing procedure emphasizes the need for the
    EPA to make the right decision and choose the stronger of the two proposals for federally enforceable coal ash safeguards that use the
    strongest limits of the law to protect the communities living near coal ash sites.”

    If, as Mr. Sutton claims, it’s in Progess Energy’s “corporate culture statement to be good stewards of the environment,” perhaps his large
    industrial firm with a vested interest in the result’s of EPA’s decision might consider the latest data.

    (This comment was submitted as a letter to the editor today)

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