Coal Tattoo

EPA releases reports on AEP coal-ash dam in W.Va.

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The site of the AEP Philip Sporn plant in Mason County, as seen from the air. The coal-ash dams in question are located along the river, south of the plant.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials have finally  made public the contractor’s report upon which they based their decision to require additional testing and warn the public about possible structural problems at two American Electric Power coal-ash dams in Mason County, W.Va.

The report by EPA contractors from the firm Dewberry is among three new documents made public today by federal officials, as part of their continuing probe of impoundments across the coalfields where utilities dump toxic ash from coal-fired power plants. EPA also made public a response by AEP and then a reply to that prepared by EPA contractors.

If you recall, EPA warned the public about concerns regarding the two  dams at AEP’s Philip Sporn Plant near New Haven on Oct. 29 — oddly enough, sending out the press release the day before AEP planned a huge celebration just up the road at its Mountaineer Plant to kick off a carbon capture test project there. But at the time of the press release, EPA refused to release its contractors’ report publicly. They did give it to the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, and I asked WVDEP to provide it to me. But I haven’t heard back in response to that request.

Initially, EPA outlined its concerns about the two Sporn dams this way:

As part of that effort, EPA contractors identified factors at the AEP Philip Sporn facility that are similar to the Kingston facility – specifically, both facilities piled coal ash and bottom ash around the impoundment to raise the impoundment’s walls.  To ensure the impoundment’s stability, EPA is requiring AEP to conduct two tests: a liquefaction test to determine if the foundation will become unstable under certain pressures, and a slope stability test to determine if the impoundment’s embankment will fail under certain pressures. 

The new documents show that EPA contractors had recommended the agency list the Sporn facilities as being in “poor conditions” and outlined these reasons:

The classification reflects concerns of the dam assessors about ongoing sloughing of downstream dikes, the ongoing occurrence of ground vibrations that could affect slope stability, the use of fly/bottom ash as a material of construction and foundation for the existing dikes, and a lack of stability analyses that address these concerns.

In response to information submitted by AEP, the EPA contractors are now recommending that the Sporn facilities be upgraded and listed as in “fair condition.” According to this document, EPA contractors  made this change:

… Because the facility is located in a region of low incidence and low intensity of earthquakes …

But, the EPA contractors are still recommending a site-specific analysis of the coal-ash dumped at the Sporn site to determine how stable it is. On its Web site, EPA says:

Finally, EPA has directed another of its engineering contractors to conduct a peer review of the Dewberry draft report on the Philip Sporn facility, as well as a review of the conclusions reached in Dewberry’s November 10, 2009 memorandum.  This peer review will be completed the week of November 16, 2009, and will be posted on the website once it has been received and reviewed by EPA.

And in a news release just issued, EPA says:

Though EPA does not believe the impoundments pose an imminent threat to the surrounding communities based on the draft report’s assessment and follow-up technical reviews, EPA issued an information request letter requiring the company to conduct several studies to assure the safety of these impoundments. The company is required to provide the results of those studies to EPA within 90 days. The company has agreed to perform the requested studies. The agency will continue to work with AEP and state and local officials and will use all necessary authority to assure the safety of the facility. 

Keep in mind that a separate review by the WVDEP’s dam safety section not only found its own problems with these two Sporn dams, but also found two other coal-ash dams near the Sporn site that state regulators didn’t even know existed.

And, interestingly, the Sporn site was not listed among the 43 coal-ash facilities at 22 sites that EPA initially provided information about to the public.  It’s the only coal-ash impoundment that’s not on that list for which EPA has issued any sort of public warning.