Power plants in the U.S. produce more than 125 million tons of coal combustion waste each year, most of which ends up in dry landfills or in above-ground coal slurry pounds. In 2000, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) listed that material as non-hazardous and thus it didn’t fall under any strict government regulations.
However, the method for the regulation of coal ash has come under scrutiny after a Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) impoundment pond failed last December and dumped more than a billion gallons of coal ash sludge over 300 acres of an east Tennessee community, destroying homes and damaging property in its wake. Both residents and environmentalists began asking questions about the toxic material that had poured into the neighboring Emory River and heaped as much as nine feet high in some areas.
Since 2000, improved pollution controls have kept toxins from leaving smokestacks and thus have increased the amount of toxins in coal ash, says Rhon Jones, Toxic Torts Section Head with Beasley Allen law firm. The material may contain arsenic, lead, chromium, manganese and barium which can contribute to dangerous health conditions such as cancer, liver damage and neurological complications, to name a few.
Many residents in the area already have complained of respiratory problems and half reported experiencing increased stress and anxiety. “In addition, EPA has improved testing which reveals toxins are leaching into groundwater more than originally thought,” Jones adds.
To date, EPA has found groundwater contaminated with heavy metals from coal ash dumps at 63 sites. An independent report asserts that nearly 100 coal ash dumps across the United States pose similar or even greater potential dangers than the TVA Kingston plant, Jones says.
“On March 9, 2009, EPA sent a survey to the 163 utilities that manage approximately 300 coal ash ponds in the U.S. The survey calls for plant operators to provide information about coal ash pond design, engineering, and inspections and to list any spills or unauthorized releases within the last decade. While a step in the right direction, EPA’s survey does not ask for information on whether the coal ash ponds are lined, whether the ponds have water collection systems to catch toxins leached from the ash, or whether groundwater monitors are in place near the ponds,” Jones says.
After survey results are reviewed, EPA plans to follow up with on-site visits and order improvements where the ponds are found to be unsafe.
In response to the December 22, 2008 coal ash spill in Kingston, Tennessee, the EPA committed to propose new regulations governing coal combustion waste by the end of 2009. The EPA also committed to act immediately to prevent accidents such as the TVA spill in Kingston.
“The Kingston, Tennessee, spill and others like it show the need for strict standards on how this waste is disposed. In addition to EPA’s renewed interest in regulating coal ash disposal, the U.S. Congress is looking into the spill,” Jones says. “Hopefully, these actions by EPA and Congress will either increase safety near these facilities, require alternative methods of disposal, or both.”