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Environmentalists Say EPA Failed to Defuse ‘Ticking Time Bombs’

Eric Pianin

Exactly six years ago Christmas eve, thick, highly toxic coal ash washed over hundreds of acres of property and recreational waterways near Kingston, Tenn., in the largest such spill in U.S. history.

A huge dam containing the liquid remains of the coal ash generated by the Kingston Fossil Plant, a Tennessee Valley Authority generating plant about 40 miles west of Knoxville, erupted early in the morning of Dec. 22, 2008. The breach of the eight-story high earthen dam sent a billion gallons of the highly toxic witch’s brew into the nearby Emory River, which feeds into the Clinch River and then the Tennessee River just downstream.

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WHY THIS MATTERS

Power plants produce more than 100 million tons of highly toxic coal ash each year. Environmentalists were expecting some strong medicine from the EPA when it finally released new rules for storing that waste to prevent contaminating water supplies. Instead, they were disappointed that EPA seemed to pull its punches last week in issuing new regulations that failed to even classify coal ash as “hazardous” to humans and wildlife.

In all, about 300 acres of waterways and banks were flooded, destroying private homes and fishing and boating facilities and spoiling the natural habitat for great blue herons. Fortunately, no one was killed. But the tidal wave of sludge for all intents and purposes wiped out a vibrant, long-standing community — including the more than 180 homes and properties purchased by the TVA.

The massive, devastating spill prompted the TVA and other utilities throughout the U.S. to reassess how they store coal ash, which is a byproduct of power plants burning coal to generate electricity and is heavily laced with arsenic, mercury and other dangerous or radioactive heavy metals.

The disaster also put pressure on Congress and the Environmental Protection Agency to look more closely at the more than 600 other artificial lakes that were built by utilities throughout the country to hold coal ash.  

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Last week, the EPA announced that the agency would bring hundreds of coal ash dumps under federal regulations for the first time, according to The Washington Post. Since the 1970s, utility companies for the most part have been exempted from federal waste-disposal regulations and instead have been allowed to dispose of coal ash under state laws, which vary greatly, according to The Washington Post. The conventional process has been to mix the coal ash with water in massive on-site cesspools, which is a lot cheaper than a much safer system of burying the coal ash in a landfill or mine shaft.

Congress prevented the EPA from classifying coal ash as “hazardous waste,” a designation that would have imposed far more stringent requirements for disposal and cleanup, or from subjecting it to federal standards that currently apply to other solid waste.

Although the utility industry has fought new, tougher disposal standards for fear of incurring huge new costs, many environmental groups had high hopes that the EPA would finally unveil new hard-hitting rules to address the threat from the ticking time bombs of coal ash ponds.

That task gained greater urgency with the recent rupture of a pipe at a Duke Energy impoundment near Eden, N.C. that leaked 39,000 tons of waste.

The EPA’s new rules would mandate extensive testing and monitoring of some disposal sites while forcing other more dangerous facilities to close down. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said the rules would sharply minimize the risk of contamination from mismanaged coal-ash dumps. “These strong safeguards will protect drinking water from contamination, air from coal ash dust, and our communities from structural failures,” she said in a statement.

But McCarthy and other EPA officials again stopped short of classifying coal ash as a “hazardous waste.” Nor did the EPA mandate a ban on the future use of storage ponds to hold the toxic material.

Lisa Evans, a former EPA attorney during the Reagan administration who now works for the public interest law firm Earthjustice in Boston, described the EPA’s decision as a bitter disappointment.

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“I think this decision, coming on the sixth anniversary of this disaster, certainly makes me feel worse about what EPA did,” Evans said in an interview on Wednesday.  “Because the point of the regulatory action that we sued for and that we think is so central to saving people’s lives was royally bungled by EPA.”

“I know how other wastes are regulated ... and there is no sector that is allowed to continue to dispose of toxic waste in such a careless and dangerous manner,” she said. “And the evidence was overwhelming that their practices had to change and change quickly before another disaster occurs.”

Over the years, the TVA has spent an estimated $1 billion to clean up the massive Kingston spill. As part of that effort, the quasi-government agency removed about 4 million of the 5.4 million tons of coal ash that flooded the rivers, with the rest of it too difficult or dangerous to remove. According to one published estimate, the quantity of gooey coal ash released in the spill exceeded in volume the oil spilled during the Deepwater Horizon accident in the Gulf of Mexico two years later.

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Most of the coal ash recovered by the TVA was shipped by rail to a landfill in Alabama. And today the area has been transformed from a pleasant riverfront community to a desolate conservation area.

“It probably looks pretty good to somebody who has never seen the area before,” said Evans. “But if you take a very vital community where people had lived there for generations, grew up and raised families, that’s all gone. And the jury is still out on whether leaving the ash in place below the water will have long-lasting environmental impact or not.” 

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