Coal Tattoo

Where are all the coal ash dams?

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West Virginia inspectors discovered two coal-ash dams they didn’t know about at an American Electric Power site in Mason County.

A buddy who used to work for the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection was fond of saying the coal industry might as well be open with the public about mountaintop removal mining. “They haven’t figured out yet how to hide a strip mine,” my buddy used to joke.

Well, apparently that’s not true for coal-ash impoundments.

During an inspection sweep of West Virginia’s coal-ash dams, the WVDEP stumbled upon two such dams that they didn’t even know existed.  Both were located at the site of American Electric Power’s Little Broad Run Landfill, near its Philip Sporn Power Plant in Mason County, W.Va.

According to a report released last week by WVDEP:

The Little Broad Run site is designed as a fly ash landfill; however, design of storm water control measures resulted in the construction of two impoundments (Area 6 and Area 7) on the surface of the landfill. The height of both structures separately exceeds the 25 foot limit of the Dam Control and Safety Act.

The report added, in describing problems with these two dams:

1. No spillway exists except for drainage through the landfill liner and one pump.
2. The embankments consist of highly erodible fly ash materials without apparent connection to natural ground foundation. No vegetation exists to stabilize the fly ash from erosion.
3. No emergency spillway or means to discharge the Dam Safety Rule design storm exists.
4. Downstream hazard potential appears to be high – loss of life is likely if the dams were to fail.

Brian Long, coordinator of WVDEP’s dam safety program, told me he didn’t think AEP deliberately ignored registering these with the state or building them to meet dam safety rules:

This developed over time. It wasn’t something they set out to do.  They just kept building it a little bit bigger and “oops” all of a sudden, it was big enough for the Dam Safety Act jurisdiction.

But this discovery by WVDEP really should come as no surprise … Remember that a U.S. Government Accountability Office report issued recently found that the federal EPA isn’t sure exactly how many of these toxic-coal ash impoundments there are:

The exact number of surface impoundments at utility coal fired power plants is not known. However, EPA is currently undertaking an effort to identify the number and location of all surface impoundments in the United States and, as of September 14, 2009, had identified over 580 surface impoundments nationwide.

Lisa Evans, a coal-ash expert with the group Earthjustice, told me:

The fact that neither fed nor state regulators know where these potentially deadly ponds are speaks mountains about the very poor state of waste regulations and it tells you how far we have still to go.