EPA guidelines may require coal-firing plants to plan for disasters

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) may be delayed in proposing new regulations for storage of toxic coal ash, but one item expected to be on the agency’s proposal is gaining applause from conservation groups. The EPA says its plan includes a requirement for coal-firing plants to set aside money that would be used in the event of future toxic waste problems, such as spills or leaks like the one from the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) plant in December 2008 that devastated a neighboring east Tennessee community.

Coal ash is not classified as a hazardous material and thus did not fall under federal regulations, but that changed in December 2008 when an impoundment pond at the east Tennessee TVA plant breached. The EPA has spent the past year inspecting coal ash storage facilities and utilities throughout the country and developing guidelines for safe storage. Those guidelines were expected to be announced by the end of 2009, but the EPA said it needed more time. That extra time may help the EPA identify and close loopholes that would otherwise leave customers of those plants footing the bill for any problems that arise.

The east Tennessee coal ash spill is a prime example. That disaster sent more than a billion gallons of toxic coal ash on to a neighboring community. The TVA is expected to spend more than a billion dollars over three years cleaning up that mess. Who is footing the cost of that cleanup? Millions of TVA customers every month in their utility bills.

TVA will soon begin negotiating with insurance companies, hoping to offset the cost of the spill for its customers. According to the South Carolina Post and Courier, many industries that handle hazardous materials must obtain bonds and other forms of insurance to cover potential toxic waste cleanups; however, power plants, chemical manufacturers and oil refineries in many cases were excluded from these requirements.

With any luck, when the EPA unveils its proposed guidelines, plants that store toxic materials will be required to hold money aside for such disasters so that their customers don’t have to pay for their problems.