EPA to begin inspection of coal ash storage areas

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will send its first teams of inspectors to coal ash storage areas across the country within weeks, according to Knoxville Business News. The inspections are the first step in developing new coal ash regulations for an industry not currently overseen by federal regulations.

The EPA is expected to prepare a public report for each unit assessed, with the goal of completing all assessments by the end of the year.

The inspections are in response to concerns raised by residents, lawmakers and environmental groups following the December 22, 2008, coal ash spill at the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) Kingston, Tennessee plant, which dumped 1.1 billion gallons of toxic material on to 300 acres of an east Tennessee community and into the neighboring Emory River. Coal ash can contain dangerous toxins such as arsenic, lead, chromium, manganese and barium, which have been linked to serious health problems such as cancer, liver damage and neurological complications.

More than 125 million tons of coal ash combustion waste is produced by power plants in the United States, most of which ends up in dry landfills or in above-ground coal slurry ponds. That material was classified by the EPA in 2000 as non-hazardous and thus was exempt from government regulations. However, 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.

“Hopefully, these actions by EPA and Congress will either increase safety near these facilities, require alternative methods of disposal, or both,” says Jones.