Coal Tattoo

Coal ash update


Buried in an Associated Press interview with Obama EPA chief Lisa Jackson that focused on greenhouse emissions rules, there was some news about coal ash. According to the story byAP’s Dina Cappiello, EPA will act before the end of the year on coal-ash regulations:

Another question the EPA is hoping to answer soon is whether it will regulate coal ash as either a solid or hazardous waste, Jackson said. The EPA chief vowed to look at the issue after a spill at a Tennessee power plant covered 300 acres with up to 9 feet of toxic muck.

Eight years ago the agency said it wanted to set a national standard for ponds or landfills used to dispose of wastes produced from burning coal, but it has so far not taken any action.

Jackson said a decision would occur by the end of the year.

“I think EPA, rightly so, should be looked to to say once and for all whether this material needs to be regulated as a solid or hazardous waste,” Jackson said. “It can’t be years, it has to be months.”

Meanwhile, a Tennessee House committee has been holding hearings on the TVA disaster,  and the Huntsville Times had a lengthy story this week about possible problems at another TVA coal-ash waste site.

And if you haven’t read “Coal Ash: The Hidden Story,” by Kristen Lombardi at the Center for Public Integrity, it’s worth a look:

For decades, the dangers of coal ash had largely been hidden from public view. That all changed in December 2008, when an earthen dam holding a billion gallons of coal ash in a pond collapsed in eastern Tennessee, deluging 300 acres in gray muck, destroying houses and water supplies, and dirtying a river.

But what happened in the Volunteer State represents just a small slice of the potential threat from coal ash. In many states — at ponds, landfills, and pits where coal ash gets dumped — a slow seepage of the ash’s metals has poisoned water supplies, damaged ecosystems, and jeopardized citizens’ health. In July 2007, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency identified 63 “proven or potential damage cases” in 23 states where coal ash has tarnished groundwater and harmed ecology. Additional cases of contamination have since surfaced in states as far-flung as Maryland, New Mexico, Indiana, and Virginia. And in some locations, like Colstrip, the contamination has resulted in multimillion-dollar payouts to residents enduring the devastation.

Despite the litany of damage, there’s no meaningful federal regulation of coal ash on the books; indeed, oversight of ash disposal — much of it stunningly casual — is largely left to the states. Argument over EPA’s potential role in regulating the waste has flared for 28 years, most prominently in a furious inter-agency battle back in 2000. The machinations back then tell a little-understood story about the raw politics and hard-edged cost-benefit analyses that often determine the outcome of national environmental policy. And that story still resonates today, as the U.S. coal industry engages in a massive publicity campaign pitching “clean coal” as a solution to both global warming and energy independence. In the wake of the Tennessee spill, as fervent new demands for action ring out on Capitol Hill, the debate over federal regulation of coal ash is flaring anew. But the outcome of that debate remains far from certain.

Among other things, Lombardi makes it clear that House Natural Resources Chairman Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., is now open to the idea that coal ash should be regulated as a hazardous waste, after vigorously opposing the idea.

“We wouldn’t be opposed to it,” says Jim Zoia, Rahall’s staff director, explaining:  “The amount of toxic material has changed with the advances of air-pollution control technologies over the last 20 years… We see coal ash as more of a threat [today].”