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Andrew Burger headshot

EPA's Historic Coal Ash Disposal Rule Not Enough, Watchdogs Say


The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Friday afternoon, Dec. 19, for the first time in U.S. history issued a federal rule governing the disposal of coal ash nationwide. With some 140 million tons left over from combustion of coal to generate electrical power, coal ash is the second largest industrial waste stream in the U.S. Up until today, it has been left up to state governments to regulate storage and disposal. In effect, public health and environmental groups point out, there has been less regulation and monitoring of coal ash than household waste in the U.S.

While welcoming the EPA's action, environmental groups say its initial rule won't do nearly enough to safeguard human and environmental health and safety. “While EPA and the Obama administration have taken a modest first step by introducing some protections on the disposal of coal ash, they do not go far enough to protect families from this toxic pollution,” Mary Anne Hitt, director of Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign, was quoted in a statement. “We welcome federal efforts on this issue, but Sierra Club has significant concerns about what has been omitted from these protections and how they will be enforced in states that have historically had poor track records on coal ash disposal."

A running, decades-long battle

A nationwide study by the EPA, along with a series of toxic spills – including one in Tennessee in 2008 that was deemed one of the largest environmental disasters in U.S. history – galvanized public action.
When it comes to coal ash disposal and storage, “states have spotty to no regulations or effective enforcement,” Dalal Aboulhosn, Sierra Club senior Coal Ash representative in Washington, D.C., told 3p in an interview. “They really are failing their citizens.” Federal regulatory standards for coal ash disposal and storage are long overdue, she continued. “This will at least set some federal safeguards across the country.”

Coal ash contains a toxic mix of chemical elements, heavy metals, and compounds that includes arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury selenium, other radioactive elements and known carcinogens that can result in a variety of serious illnesses, premature deaths and birth defects. People have been well aware of the potentially toxic and lethal effects of coal ash on living things, as well as on our land, water and the atmosphere, since we began burning coal.

Opposed by coal mining companies, labor unions and power utilities, previous efforts to institute federal standards governing coal ash storage and disposal were rebuffed.

The political calculus – at least at the executive level – shifted abruptly in December 2008 when a dike at coal ash pond at the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston Fossil Plant burst, sending an estimated 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash cascading into the Emory and Clinch Rivers and over some 300 acres of land. As USA Today reported five years later, little had changed.

Documenting public health and environmental impacts

The Kingston Fossil coal ash spill merited a spot among Mother Nature News Network's top 10 worst U.S. environmental disasters. As MNN highlights in its summary of the disaster, the coal ash pond “contained a decade’s worth of arsenic, selenium, lead and radioactive materials. These metals can cause cancer, liver damage, neurological disorders and other health problems, but the EPA doesn’t classify coal ash as a hazardous material. As workers in Hazmat suits picked through the sludge, Kingston residents were told the ash didn’t present a serious health risk.”

Besides the profound, immediate impacts of large-scale spills, coal ash ponds and other storage/disposal sites pose constant, chronic risks, particularly in communities located near such sites. It's fair to say that coal mining and power utility executives don't live near such sites.

The Sierra Club joined with community, other environmental and public health groups in Earthjustice's 2012 federal lawsuit. That coalition included Native American tribes, such as Nevada's Mowapa Band of Paiute Indians. Swept by winds, coal ash from NV Energy's mammoth, 557-megawatt Reid Gardner power plant blows across their lands causing a variety of health problems, Sierra Club's Aboulhosn highlighted.

Coal ash is particularly hazardous when mixed with water, a common method of storage for the approximately 60 percent of coal ash in the U.S. that isn't recycled. That's why establishing a national standard for construction and regular monitoring of coal ash ponds has been one focal point for the groups awaiting EPA's final rule.

As the group Physicans for Social Responsibility highlights in a research brief:

“The toxic substances found in coal ash can inflict grave damage to the human body and the environment. These substances have been shown to escape from some coal ash disposal sites, contaminating the air, land, surface waters, and/or underground aquifers that feed drinking water wells...

"Many people are still not aware of how toxic coal ash is, or how much of it exists:

  • Coal ash commonly contains some of the earth’s deadliest toxics: arsenic, lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium and selenium;

  • The toxic metals in coal ash can leach out of ash disposal sites, especially from wet storage, and contaminate surface waters and underground aquifers, where they can cause cancer and neurological harm in humans and can poison fish;

  • There are nearly a thousand sites at which coal ash is disposed across the nation: 584 surface ponds and 337 dry landfills. Coal ash disposal facilities exist in all the U.S. states except Rhode Island, Vermont and Idaho;

  • Coal ash is the second-largest industrial waste stream in the U.S., after mining wastes.”

Spills lead to public calls for regulatory action

The Kingston Fossil coal ash spill galvanized communities, as well as public health and environmental groups, around the nation who had long been seeking stronger federal action to protect people and the environment from coal ash.

Earthjustice in April 2012 brought suit in federal court on behalf of such a coalition to spur EPA to take action as per its authority under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). Finding in the plaintiffs' favor, a federal district court judge set a date of Dec. 19 for the EPA to issue a first-ever national rule governing coal ash disposal.

For all the public health and environmental damages coal ash storage and disposal has been wreaking, environmental groups including Sierra Club are of the view that deeming it a “hazardous waste” by federal standards would be counterproductive.

Categorizing coal ash as “hazardous” by federal law would eliminate the possibility of recycling it in the manufacturing of building materials and products. Along with public health and other environmental groups, Serra Club “supports encapsulation of coal ash, as in concrete, which locks up the heavy metals and prevents environmental leakage,” Aboulhosn told 3p a day before EPA was scheduled to issue its final rule.

“The problem is proposals to this point include 'beneficial uses,' such as using coal ash for fertilizer, dumping it in old mine shafts and applying it on roadways as an anti-skid agent. We have great concerns about those.”

“What we are asking for in a coal ash rule at a national level are basic safeguards for communities around these sites, such as pond linings and water monitoring. These are commonsense protections the industry should welcome and communities have been waiting for for decades.

As of Thursday evening, Sierra Club and other proponents were also looking for the EPA to address legacy coal ash disposal sites that continue to pollute. They were hoping to see requirements in the EPA's new rule that require remediation of all existing coal ash ponds.

As reported in the Huffington Post, the EPA's rules call “for the closure of active surface impoundments and landfills that 'fail to meet engineering and structural standards.' They will also require regular inspections of the structural integrity of surface impoundments at active sites ... as well as monitoring and cleanup of unlined surface impoundments that are found to be leaching into groundwater.”

Furthermore, they don't require clean-up or closing abandoned coal ash ponds. The EPA said it doesn't believe it has the authority to do so. In addition, “utilities will still be able to add more slurry to existing unlined ponds, as long as those ponds aren't found to be leaking or structurally unsound,” Huffington Post's Kate Sheppard points out.

The EPA's initial rule, Sierra Club says, doesn't go far enough to address the longstanding threat and damaging effects coal ash disposal sites pose to human and environmental health and safety.

“Some parts of what the EPA has handed down will provide useful tools for communities, like requiring groundwater monitoring and dust controls around coal ash sites and making that data available to the public, but we are disappointed that it allows utilities to continue disposing of coal ash in ponds and does not incorporate strong federal enforcement,” Hitt commented. "Today’s announcement still leaves people to largely fend for themselves against powerful utility interests that have historically ignored public health in favor of delayed action.

“Moving forward, Sierra Club and our coalition partners will use every tool available to strengthen this EPA safeguard, pressure state governments to do more to help communities suffering from ash pollution, and work with local residents to stand up to the utilities responsible for poisoning their water and air with this toxic industrial waste.

“Today was a step forward, but it was a step too small when considering the level of action needed to truly help those Americans living near these coal ash sites.”

*Image credits: Sierra Club Beyond Coal campaign

Andrew Burger headshotAndrew Burger

An experienced, independent journalist, editor and researcher, Andrew has crisscrossed the globe while reporting on sustainability, corporate social responsibility, social and environmental entrepreneurship, renewable energy, energy efficiency and clean technology. He studied geology at CU, Boulder, has an MBA in finance from Pace University, and completed a certificate program in international governance for biodiversity at UN University in Japan.

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