Coal Tattoo

Study finds radioactive contaminants in coal ash


There’s an important new study out this week from Duke University that reveals — for the first time — the presence of radioactive contaminants in coal ash from all three major U.S. coal-producing regions. Here’s part of the press release from Duke:

The study found that levels of radioactivity in the ash were up to five times higher than in normal soil, and up to 10 times higher than in the parent coal itself because of the way combustion concentrates radioactivity.

The finding raises concerns about the environmental and human health risks posed by coal ash, which is currently unregulated and is stored in coal-fired power plants’ holding ponds and landfills nationwide.

“Until now, metals and contaminants such as selenium and arsenic have been the major known contaminants of concern in coal ash,” said Avner Vengosh, professor of geochemistry and water quality at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment. “This study raises the possibility we should also be looking for radioactive elements, such as radium isotopes and lead-210, and including them in our monitoring efforts.”

The study, published today in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, is available here.

White House threatens veto of coal ash bill

Coal Ash Spill

In this Dec. 22, 2008 file photo, an aerial view shows homes that were destroyed when a retention pond wall collapsed at the Tennessee Valley Authorities Kingston Fossil Plant in Harriman, Tenn.   (AP Photo/Wade Payne, File)

With the U.S. House set this week to take up West Virginia Republican Rep. David McKinley’s coal-ash bill, the Obama White House yesterday evening issued a pretty clear threat to veto the legislation if it ever reaches the president’s desk. Essentially, the administration says the proposal would undercut the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s coal-ash rule issued last December:

EPA’s rule articulates clear and consistent national standards to protect public health and the environment, prevent contamination of drinking water, and minimize the risk of catastrophic failure at coal ash surface impoundments. H.R. 1734 would, however, substantially weaken these protections. For example, the bill would eliminate restrictions on how close coal ash impoundments can be located to drinking water sources. It also would undermine EPA’s requirement that unlined impoundments must close or be retrofitted with protective liners if they are leaking and contaminating drinking water. Further, the bill would delay requirements in EPA’s final CCR rule, including structural integrity and closure requirements, for which tailored extensions are already available through EPA’s rule and through approved Solid Waste Management Plans.

This morning, Rep. McKinley, through a spokesman, had this to say in response:

Two years ago, President Obama said he ‘would like to work with Congress’ to ensure the safe management of coal ash. That’s what we have done with our bill. Yesterday’s veto threat ignores the bipartisan consensus built over five years on this bill.

Continue reading…

Coal ash spills and citizen suits: Sound familiar?

Coal Ash Spill

Amy Adams, North Carolina campaign coordinator with Appalachian Voices, shows her hand covered with wet coal ash from the Dan River swirling in the background as state and federal environmental officials continued their investigations of a spill of coal ash into the river in Danville, Va., Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2014. Duke Energy estimates that up to 82,000 tons of ash has been released from a break in a 48-inch storm water pipe at the Dan River Power Plant in Eden N.C. on Sunday. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

UPDATED: Speaking of spills — here’s our Gazette report on the coal-slurry spill here in West Virginia today.

The Associated Press had a great story out yesterday about the events that preceded the big coal-ash spill on the Dan River in North Carolina:

Over the last year, environmental groups have tried three times to use the federal Clean Water Act to force Duke Energy to clear out leaky coal ash dumps like the one that ruptured last week, spewing enough toxic sludge into a North Carolina river to fill 73 Olympic-sized pools.

Each time, they say, their efforts have been stymied — by the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

The state agency has blocked the citizen lawsuits by intervening at the last minute to assert its own authority under the federal act to take enforcement action. After negotiating with Duke, the state proposed settlements where the nation’s largest electricity provider pays modest fines but is under no requirement to actually clean up its coal ash ponds.

The story continues:

Environmental groups and federal regulators had been concerned for years about problems at Duke’s 31 coal-ash waste ponds in North Carolina. Those concerns intensified after a 2008 disaster in Kingston, Tenn., where 5 million cubic yards of ash burst out of a basin, covering 300 acres and devastating a nearby river. The cleanup has cost $1.2 billion.

After Kingston, the Southern Environmental Law Center began examining the issue with conservationist groups and targeted a coal ash lagoon along the Wateree River in South Carolina.

On behalf of the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation, the legal group filed a lawsuit against South Carolina Electric & Gas for violating state environmental laws. They reached an agreement that requires the utility to empty its lagoons and move the ash to a lined landfill licensed to handle hazardous waste.

That isn’t all:

Next, the environmental groups turned their attention to Duke’s coal ash ponds in North Carolina. The groups had long shared water samples from lakes and rivers near the waste ponds with state regulators that showed contamination, but no fines were issued.

So in January 2013, the SELC filed a notice of intent to sue Duke in federal court over coal ash pollution at the company’s Asheville Steam Generating Plant.

The Clean Water Act allows citizen groups to file lawsuits over environmental violations, but it requires them to give 60-days’ notice to state regulators to take enforcement action before the case can proceed. On the 58th day after the notice, DENR filed notice it would assert its jurisdiction.

Continue reading…

Well, what do you know … a coal ash spill …

Coal Ash Spill

Coal ash swirls on the surface of the Dan River as state and federal environmental officials continued their investigations of a spill of coal ash into the river in Danville, Va., Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2014. Duke Energy estimates that up to 82,000 tons of ash has been released from a break in a 48-inch storm water pipe at the Dan River Power Plant in Eden N.C. on Sunday. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

The ink was barely dry on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s court filing that finally announced some sort of timeline for the first-ever federal regulations on the handling and disposal of toxic coal ash when we go this news out of North Carolina:

Over the weekend at an old power plant in Eden, N.C., a stormwater pipe that goes under a coal ash pond broke, sending about 82,000 tons of ash into the Dan River.

The river stretches more than 200 miles from North Carolina, through Virginia and into the Atlantic Ocean. It’s home to all sorts of wildlife, and a popular destination for fishermen and kayakers.

On Wednesday, Jennifer Edwards, with the Dan River Basin Association, was checking the water and sediment about a mile downriver from the spill.

“Yesterday, it was a decided charcoal gray; today it’s more of a khaki brown,” she says. “So that may indicate that the suspended solids are either settling down or washing out.”

Edwards says it’s too early to know what the effect will be on fish, bugs and plant life in the river.

The Coal Ash Chronicles has some interesting posted on this incident here and here, and it’s also being followed by Appalachian Voices and by Jim Bruggers at the Courier-Journal.

EPA sets December deadline for coal ash rules


Here’s the latest news day from Earthjustice:

Late yesterday, the Environmental Protection Agency announced plans to finalize first-ever federal regulations for the disposal of coal ash by December 19, 2014, according to a settlement in a lawsuit brought by environmental and public health groups and a Native American tribe. The settlement does not dictate the content of the final regulation, but it confirms that the agency will finalize a rule by a date certain after years of delay.

You can read a copy of the court filing here, and Earthjustice further explained:

The settlement is in response to a lawsuit brought in 2012 by Earthjustice on behalf of Appalachian Voices (NC); Chesapeake Climate Action Network (MD); Environmental Integrity Project (DC, PA); Kentuckians For The Commonwealth (KY); Moapa Band of Paiutes (NV); Montana Environmental Information Center (MT); Physicians for Social Responsibility (DC); Prairie Rivers Network (IL); Sierra Club (CA); Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (eight southeast states); and Western North Carolina Alliance (NC). In October, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that the EPA has a mandatory duty to review and revise its waste regulations under the Resource and Conservation Recovery Act. The EPA has never finalized any federal regulations for the disposal of coal ash—the nation’s second largest industrial waste stream.

Taking overdue action to safeguard communities from coal ash was the first promise the Obama Administration made to the American public. Former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson vowed to finalize coal ash regulations following a spill in Kingston, TN, where over a billion gallons of coal ash burst through a dam and damaged or destroyed two dozen homes and 300 acres of riverfront property. In the aftermath of that disaster, the EPA proposed various regulatory options in May 2010 and held seven public hearings in August and September of that year. Environmental and public health groups, community organizations, Native American tribes and others generated more than 450,000 public comments on EPA’s proposed regulation, calling for the strongest protections under the law. But since then, despite coal ash contamination at more than 200 sites nationwide, the EPA has failed to finalize the protections under pressure from industry, the White House and some members of Congress.

There’s a helpful timeline of actions (and inactions) on coal ash here, and the citizen groups involved in this case had this to say today:

Now we have certainty that EPA is going to take some action to protect us and all of the hundreds of communities across the country that are being poisoned by coal ash dumps. Since the disaster in Kingston, we have seen more tragic spills, and the list of sites where coal ash is contaminating our water keeps growing.  Today, we are celebrating because the rule we need is finally in sight.

But this deadline alone is not enough.  EPA needs to finalize a federally enforceable rule that will clean up the air and water pollution that threatens people in hundreds of communities across the country. Coal ash has already poisoned too many lakes, rivers, streams and groundwater aquifers. It is time to close dangerous unlined ash impoundments like the one that burst at Kingston. 

Utility companies need to stop dumping ash into unlined pits and start safely disposing of ash in properly designed landfills. Groundwater testing is needed at these ash dumps, data needs to be shared with the public, and power companies must act promptly to clean up their mess. A rule that requires anything less than these common-sense safeguards will leave thousands of people who live near ash dumps in harm’s way.


Judge gives EPA more time to write coal-ash rules


There’s a ruling out today that promises to — eventually — give the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency  some sort of deadline for finalizing the agency’s long-delayed new rules for the handling and disposal of toxic coal ash. You can read the ruling yourself here, but this is the bottom line:

U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton has given EPA 60 days to submit a schedule for completing its review and revision of those rules … Now, the judge isn’t ordering the review and revision to be done within those 60 days, just telling EPA to show him their plan and schedule by the end of that period.

Various citizen groups who took EPA to court to force the agency’s hand appear pretty pleased with the outcome, saying in a statement:

Coal ash has contaminated more than 200 rivers, lakes, streams and aquifers across the country. Hundreds of additional unlined and unmonitored coal ash dumpsites exist, as well as hundreds of potentially dangerous coal ash dams. The decision by this federal court to put the EPA on a schedule for finalizing federal coal ash regulations is a victory for the communities and neighborhoods living next to these toxic sites. Federal protection is long overdue. This December marks the 5th anniversary of the tragic coal ash spill in Kingston, TN, where a billion gallons of coal ash sludge destroyed 300 acres and dozens of homes. Our communities have waited long enough for protection from coal ash and we don’t want to see another Kingston disaster happen before federal protections are in place. We’re pleased to see that within the next two months, the EPA must set a deadline for finalizing these critical public health safeguards.

No word yet on a reaction from EPA.

Sen. Boxer opposes Rep. McKinley’s coal ash bill

boxer2This just in from the office of Senate Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.:

In a letter sent today, Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, wrote to Senate colleagues about the serious impact of passing H.R. 2218, the Coal Residuals Reuse and Management Act.

The bill would prevent the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from moving forward with protective national standards for toxic coal ash.

 Of course, this is the legislation championed by Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., that was passed last week by the House. In her letter to Senate colleagues, Sen. Boxer writes:

…It is important to note that this bill passed while the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is developing protective national standards, and this bill would prevent EPA from moving forward with these national standards to safeguard the people we represent.

We must be mindful of what happened in Kingston, Tennessee in 2008, when a wall failed on a 40-acre coal ash impoundment, releasing over one billion gallons of waste and causing over $1 billion in cleanup costs.

There are over 600 coal waste disposal impoundments across the nation and more than 100 million tons of coal waste are generated each year. Coal waste contains toxic chemicals, such as arsenic, lead, mercury, and selenium, which are known to cancer, harm development and reproduction, and damage the kidneys and lungs — pregnant women and children are especially at risk.

The letter also notes:

The suggestion by the bill’s proponents that EPA does not oppose H.R. 2218 is not true, and it is important for you to know the facts — EPA has confirmed to me that the Agency does not support H.R. 2218 as drafted.


I would be happy to send you an analysis by the Congressional Research Service, which outlines serious concerns about the bill’s failure to provide the protections necessary to safeguard communities near coal waste sites across the nation.

I will oppose this bill at every turn, because if it became law, coal ash would continue to pose a grave threat to public health and safety.

Coal Ash Spill

In this Dec. 22, 2008 file photo, an aerial view shows homes that were destroyed when a retention pond wall collapsed at the Tennessee Valley Authorities Kingston Fossil Plant in Harriman, Tenn.  U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Varlan ruled Thursday, Aug. 23, 2012 that The Tennessee Valley Authority is liable for the huge spill of toxin-laden sludge. Varlan said in a written opinion that TVA was negligent in its conduct and will be liable for damages to be determined later. (AP Photo/Wade Payne, File)

Earlier today, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the latest version of a bill from Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., to block the federal Environmental Protection Agency from regulating toxic coal ash from the nation’s power plants. As Erica Peterson explained for WFPL, the vote was 265-155.  West Virginia’s other two House members, Democrat Nick Rahall and Republican Shelley Moore Capito, are both co-sponsors of the bill.

McKinley2Rep. McKinley said today:

For 33 years Congress has wrestled with how to deal with coal ash but has failed to find an answer. The bill that passed the House today is a common sense solution for how to recycle and dispose of this unavoidable byproduct of burning coal.

Keep in mind that the bipartisan Congressional Research Service has offered tough criticisms of the legislation, and Earthjustice has likewise said the legislation is far too weak, with the group’s coal-ash expert, Lisa Evans saying just this week:

This bill falsely claims to address the nationwide toxic threat from coal ash dumping. But in reality, the bill will make the problem much worse.

Continue reading…

Petra Wood, right, of Casswille, WV., holds a protest sign outside the Morgantown, W.Va., office of U.S. Rep. David McKinley on June 23, 2011. Wood and other members of the West Virginia Sierra Club want McKinley to withdraw a bill they say would strip the Environmental Protection Agency of its power to protect people from toxic coal ash. (AP Photo/Vicki Smith)

As mentioned earlier this week, Rep. David McKinley is at it again. The latest version of the West Virginia Republican’s coal-ash legislation cleared a House subcommittee yesterday. And while his efforts on this issue have gone nowhere in the Senate, Rep. McKinley is hopeful it will go differently this time. Vicky Smith over at the AP has a story out about it this morning:

McKinley says this year is different: The latest version of the Coal Residuals Reuse and Management Act (H.R. 2218) was crafted with input from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which McKinley said is “not opposing” the draft that cleared a House subcommittee Thursday.

“We’ve listened and reacted,” he said, “and we’ve listened again.”

David Beard at the Morgantown Dominion Post focused on EPA’s stance, too, in a story he did in yesterday’s newspaper (subscription required), noting that during a telephone press conference on Wednesday, McKinley:

… told reporters … [that] at this point the EPA doesn’t appear to oppose the bill … “I hope, they’ll continue to stay with us.”

But of course, EPA — in a dance that is becoming all too familiar from this agency under the Obama administration — won’t answer questions about its thoughts on the current version of the coal-ash legislation.

When I contacted EPA’s press office this week to inquire if the agency was now supporting Rep. McKinley’s bill, press secretary Alisha Johnson pulled this on me:

We don’t comment on pending legislation.

Well, that’s simply not true. EPA does comment on pending legislation. Not two weeks ago, when Sen. Joe Manchin helped to broker the Lautenberg-Vitter agreement on a bipartisan chemical safety bill, EPA spokeswoman Molly Hooven gave me this quote, instructing me to attribute it to Johnson, the agency press secretary:

EPA is pleased that Senators Lautenberg and Vitter are working together to update the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) — chemical safety is a bipartisan issue. EPA continues to support and advocate for a strengthened chemicals management law in accordance with the Administration’s principles.  We look forward to working with Congress, stakeholders, and the public as we move forward on this effort to ensure that EPA has the tools necessary to make certain that chemicals manufactured and used every day in this country are safe.

And, as Vicki noted in her AP dispatch, EPA assistant administrator Mathy Stanislaus commented on an earlier version of the bill during a House committee hearing back in April. In his prepared testimony, Stanislaus had this to say:

The Discussion Draft of the Coal Ash Recycling and Oversight Act addresses some of the principles discussed above for effective CCR management. Although the Discussion draft contains key provisions that require states to implement CCR programs that address specific contaminants, address leaking surface impoundments and, require the establishment of groundwater monitoring, we note that it does not clearly address timelines for the development and implementation of state programs, criteria for EPA to use to determine when a state program is deficient, criteria for CCR unit structural integrity, deadlines for closure of unlined or leaking impoundments/units, including inactive or abandoned impoundments/units, and the universe of CCR disposal units subject to a permit program including impoundments, landfills, waste piles, pits and quarries, and other disposal scenarios.

And Greenwire noted additional comments EPA made at the hearing:

Even though EPA has been working for years on national regulations to police coal ash disposal, EPA Solid Waste Assistant Administrator Mathy Stanislaus said the agency doesn’t necessarily oppose a draft bill up for discussion that would effectively pre-empt EPA’s ongoing efforts.

“We do not have an official position,” Stanislaus testified during a sometimes-contentious hearing of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and the Economy. Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) asked, “Could you characterize the EPA’s position as wishing to cooperate with the committee on this bill or wanting to be confrontational?” Stanislaus responded, “We are absolutely willing to cooperate.” EPA has not offered a timeline for completing the regulation.

Continue reading…

Rep. McKinley introduces new coal-ash bill

When we last left West Virginia Republication Rep. David McKinley, he was using his stacked discussion panel to pretend there’s no scientific consensus about man-made global warming. Well this week, Rep. McKinley is bringing back a somewhat reworked version of his coal-ash legislation (see the bill here and a summary here). He says in a prepared statement:

Coal ash is widely reused in construction products such as cement, concrete, wallboard, and roofing materials. This bill will preserve this beneficial reuse and help keep electricity costs low for American businesses and families. It provides a workable alternative to EPA’s 2010 proposal to regulate coal ash as a hazardous waste, which put hundreds of thousands of jobs in jeopardy and threatened to drive up electricity and construction costs.

According to that statement:

The Coal Residuals Reuse and Management Act retains the same guiding principles from McKinley’s previous legislation, H.R. 2273, which passed the House in 2011 by a bipartisan vote of 267 to 144. The legislation protects both the environment and jobs by setting enforceable federal standards while allowing states to craft a permit program that works best for the state. The legislation also contains many improvements that were contained in S.3512, including requirements for groundwater monitoring at all structures that receive coal ash after enactment and corrective action for unlined, leaking impoundments within a specified time period.

The new legislation makes additional clarifications and key improvements such as setting deadlines for issuing permits, creating an interim compliance period for many of the requirements, and identifying criteria to assess whether a state permit program is meeting the minimum requirements. The legislation also includes new provisions to ensure structural stability, including a consultation with state dam safety officials, a periodic evaluation to identify structural weakness and potentially hazardous conditions, and the creation of an emergency action plan for high hazard structures.

But here’s what the folks at Earthjustice had to say today:

Late last night, Congressman David McKinley introduced bad legislation (H.R. 2218, the Coal Residuals Reuse and Management Act) designed to subvert the EPA’s ability to set federally enforceable safeguards for coal ash pollution. Despite having one of the nation’s largest coal ash impoundments in his district—which has contaminated nearby groundwater and streams with arsenic, lead and other toxic metals—Congressman McKinley persists in his misguided mission to allow power companies to continue dumping toxic coal ash into unlined and unmonitored landfills and ponds.

Lisa Evans, an Earthjustice coal ash expert, told me:

The bill remains dramatically inadequate to protect human health and the environment.  While HR 2218 contains some superficial changes, its critical underlying deficiencies have not been cured.  The bill still contains no protective standard to ensure public health is protected by state programs nationwide, leaking coal ash dumps still have no real-world requirement to close in a timely manner, the regulated universe remains completely undefined, structural stability standards are inadequate, and legacy dump sites are still completely unaddressed.  These are huge and dangerous gaps in public protection. There is window dressing, but the house is still burning.

War on coal: Obama EPA delays coal-ash rules again

We’re a few weeks removed now from the four-year anniversary of the terrible coal-ash disaster in East Tennessee, and here’s the word from Bloomberg BNA on the Obama administration’s for doing anything to avoid a repeat of that incident:

The Environmental Protection Agency still cannot provide a “definitive time” for promulgating final regulations on the management of coal ash from power plants, an agency senior official told BNA.

Mathy Stanislaus, EPA assistant administrator for solid waste and emergency response, said Jan. 7 the agency needs to issue an additional notice of data availability prior to issuing final regulations because of new information that “could potentially influence our risk analysis and cost estimates.”

Stanislaus said EPA is working to issue the notice “as soon as we can.”

There’s an interesting item out of Tennessee in this morning’s Knoxville News-Sentinel:

The Environmental Protection Agency’s decision on how to proceed with the final phase of TVA’s cleanup of coal ash spilled in a 2008 calamity will be issued Nov. 6, an official said.

The EPA will announce then its approved method for dealing with the sludge — in layers ranging from several inches to several feet thick — that coat the bottoms of the Emory and Clinch rivers.

Officials have estimated the equivalent of about 33,000 dump truck loads of sludge are spread over 200 acres.

It’s part of some 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash that burst from a ruptured holding cell at TVA’s Kingston Fossil Plant in December 2008.

But as OMB Watch pointed out earlier this week, there’s still really no word from the Obama administration on when — or if — it plans to finalize new national standards for the handling and disposal of toxic coal ash:

This December will mark the four-year anniversary of a massive spill in Tennessee that sparked new calls for the regulation of coal ash, a toxic waste produced when coal is burned. Although the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed options for regulating coal ash in 2010, little progress has been made toward issuing comprehensive national standards. Environmental groups have asked the courts to force the agency to act while bills attempting to thwart new standards have been moving through Congress. This impasse may continue until after the upcoming elections. The failure to provide adequate standards for coal ash is increasingly alarming as new studies continue to highlight its dangers.

Now, the Republicans in the U.S. Senate are trying to make something out of this, claiming in a new “report” that the EPA’s coal ash rules are among a number of initiatives that the Obama administration has recently put on hold until after the election, to hide its real intent for actions in a second term:

… It’s pretty clear that if President Obama secures a second term, the Obama-EPA will have a very busy next four years, moving full speed ahead to implement numerous major rules and regulations that he has delayed or punted due to the upcoming election. The radical environmental left may not need to worry, but what about American families, who are working hard in tough economic times, trying to make ends meet?

As the nation struggles to recover from a lagging economy in the coming year, Americans could also be grappling with a regulatory onslaught from the Obama-EPA that will strangle economic growth, destroy millions of jobs, and dramatically raise the price of goods, the cost of electricity, and the price of gas at the pump.

Frankly, though, I’m not sure the timeline on these coal-ash rules backs up this version of events. There’s plenty of evidence that EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson has never been all that hot to do anything about coal ash in the first place.

The TVA coal-ash disaster in Tennessee occurred in December 2008, a couple of weeks after the election. Only a few months into the Obama administration, in March 2009, EPA promised it would propose a rule by the end of that year.   But come December 2009, as the first anniversary of the TVA disaster approached, Lisa Jackson was backing off that timeline. As I wrote in a Dec. 18, 2009, Gazette story:

The Obama administration announced Thursday it would delay the release of proposed new rules on the handling and disposal of toxic ash from coal-fired power plants.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson had promised the rules proposal would be issued before the end of the year.

In a prepared statement, EPA did not offer a new timeline, but said the delay was for a “short period” and the proposal would be issued “in the near future.”

EPA cited the “complexity of the analysis” involved in the issue and said agency officials are “still actively clarifying and refining parts of the proposal.”

“Administrator Jackson has been committed since the beginning of her administration to complete these efforts, and expects to issue a proposed rule in the near future,” the EPA said.

EPA didn’t announce a proposed rule until May 2010, and even then, it wasn’t so much a proposal as an outline of what we already knew: There were two major options for how the agency could go about regulating coal ash, and EPA couldn’t decide which one it wanted to use. And then, in May 2011, EPA announced it wasn’t going to complete a final rule in 2011 … So after talking pretty big about coal ash concerns, the Obama EPA has now spent four years thinking about it, and has no final rule to show for it.

Lisa Evans, who follows coal ash issues for the group Earthjustice, told me recently:

Appeasement is all I’ve seen so far from EPA on the coal ash issue … If the industry defines “war” as any reasonable regulation of coal ash– all one can say is that the Obama Administration has refused to engage. 


Sunday’s Washington Post included the following update from environmental reporter Juliet Eilperin on the important issue of regulating the handling and disposal of toxic coal ash from our nation’s power plants:

In Maryland’s Zekiah Swamp, one of the Chesapeake Bay’s most important tributaries, 8.4 million tons of coal ash in pits from former operations of the Morgantown power plant are leaking into groundwater. Residents on the Moapa River Reservation north of Las Vegas blame a spike in respiratory illnesses on the uncovered ash ponds and ash dump from a generating station nearby.

The ash left after burning coal includes toxic elements such as arsenic, lead, cadmium, selenium and mercury. Produced by 431 coal-fired power plants, which supply 36 percent of the nation’s electricity, coal ash piles up at the staggering rate of 140 million tons a year.

More than 40 percent of it is recycled to help make concrete, gypsum wallboard and pavement. But utilities store the rest in landfills, ponds or mines, and evidence has been growing in recent years that leakage is a problem.

“The time has come for common-sense national protections to assure safe disposal of these materials,” Environmental Protection Agency administrator Lisa P. Jackson said. That was in 2010.

Despite ongoing controversy — in the last week and a half alone environment groups have sued 14 power plants in North Carolina and four in Illinois over coal ash contamination — no one expects anything more to happen before the election. After that, it depends on the priorities of the party controlling the White House.

Interestingly, the Post story comes just as a new study was being published in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Science and Technology in which Duke University researchers reported:

The combustion of coal to generate electricity produces about 130 million tons of coal combustion residues (CCRs) each year in the United States; yet their environmental implications are not well constrained. This study systematically documents the quality of effluents discharged from CCR settling ponds or cooling water at ten sites and the impact on associated waterways in North Carolina, compared to a reference lake. We measured the concentrations of major and trace elements in over 300 samples from CCR effluents, surface water from lakes and rivers at different downstream and upstream points, and pore water extracted from lake sediments. The data show that CCR effluents contain high levels of contaminants that in several cases exceed the U.S. EPA guidelines for drinking water and ecological effects.

This investigation demonstrates the quality of receiving waters in North Carolina depends on (1) the ratio between effluent flux and freshwater resource volumes and (2) recycling of trace elements through adsorption on suspended particles and release to deep surface water or pore water in bottom sediments during periods of thermal water stratification and anoxic conditions. The impact of CCRs is long-term, which influences contaminant accumulation and the health of aquatic life in water associated with coal-fired power plants.

Study author Avner Vengosh, professor of geochemistry and water quality at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment, said:

We are saving the sky by putting in more scrubbers to remove particulates from power plant emissions. But these contaminants don’t just disappear. As our study shows, they remain in high concentrations in the solid waste residue and wastewater the coal-fired power plants produce. Yet there are no systematic monitoring or regulations to reduce water-quality impacts from coal ash ponds because coal ash is not considered as hazardous waste.


Judge: TVA liable for coal-ash spill

In this Dec. 22, 2008 file photo, an aerial view shows homes that were destroyed when a retention pond wall collapsed at the Tennessee Valley Authorities Kingston Fossil Plant in Harriman, Tenn. (AP Photo/Wade Payne, File)

Here’s the breaking news, via The Associated Press:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Tennessee Valley Authority is liable for a huge spill of toxin-laden sludge in 2008 in Tennessee, a federal judge ruled Thursday.

The decision is a victory for hundreds of plaintiffs who sued after a containment dike at TVA’s Kingston Fossil Plant burst in 2008. About 5 million cubic yards of ash spilled out of a storage pond, flowed into a river and spoiled hundreds of acres in a riverside community 35 miles west of Knoxville.

U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Varlan said in a written opinion that TVA was negligent in its conduct and will be liable for damages to be determined later.

There’s also coverage from The Tennessean and the Knoxville News-Sentinel. I’ve posted a copy of the judge’s ruling here.

Pa. orders Little Blue Run coal-ash dump closed

Just two months ago, we wrote about citizen groups threatening to sue over the FirstEnergy Corp. Little Blue Run coal-ash impoundment near Chester, W.Va. Now, we have this news:

On Fri­day, the Penn­syl­va­nia Depart­ment of Envi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion filed a law­suit and con­sent decree in fed­eral court seek­ing to shut down a coal ash dump on the bor­der of Penn­syl­va­nia and West Vir­ginia. First Energy’s Lit­tle Blue Run coal ash impound­ment pond in Beaver County takes toxic sludge from the company’s Bruce Mans­field coal burn­ing power plant in Ship­ping­port, Pa.

Prob­lems with the pond, which encom­passes almost 800 acres on a 1700 acre site, date back to the 1970’s. The unlined impound­ment has resulted in leaks of heavy met­als such as arsenic and sele­nium, caus­ing dam­age to drink­ing water sup­plies and nearby sur­face water.

“This proac­tive move is aimed at address­ing com­pre­hen­sively for the future long-standing mat­ters about the Lit­tle Blue Run impound­ment,” DEP Sec­re­tary Mike Krancer said in a state­ment. “We believe this will not only make major strides in envi­ron­men­tal projects for that area, but also bring peace of mind to many res­i­dents who have expressed con­cerns about the Lit­tle Blue Run impoundment.”

The Akron Beacon Journal explained:

The company’s announcement comes in the wake of a federal court filing on Friday by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection against the unlined 1,700-acre impoundment next to the Ohio River on the Pennsylvania-West Virginia border.

The state had filed the first-ever state lawsuit against a coal ash operator for causing what was called potential “imminent and substantial endangerment” to human health and the environment from the largest coal ash impoundment in the United States.

A FirstEnergy subsidiary, FirstEnergy Generation Corp., must finalize a closure plan for the impoundment by March 31 and the water-storage area must close by Dec. 31, 2016, said spokesman Mark Durbin.

The company will pay an $800,000 fine to the state under a proposed consent decree, he said.

The company will also be ordered to analyze and clean up contaminated water surrounding the impoundment.

Public Justice lawyer Richard Webster, who represents citizens on the issue, aid:

PADEP has recognized that FirstEnergy’s disposal of wet coal ash into a huge unlined lagoon has caused major environmental problems, despite existing state regulations. We are pleased that PA DEP has recognized the problems and started to make FirstEnergy solve them.

Suit threatened over huge W.Va. coal-ash dump

Here’s some news just announced by various citizen groups, the Environmental Integrity Project and Public Justice:

The largest coal-ash pond in the United States – the 1,700-acre Little Blue Run impoundment site in Pennsylvania and West Virginia for FirstEnergy’s Bruce Mansfield Plant – is the focus of litigation to be filed by Little Blue Regional Action Group, formerly known as Citizens Against Coal Ash, along with attorneys from Environmental Integrity Project and Public Justice.

According to the notice of intent (NOI) filed by LBRAG: Leaks, seeps, and direct discharges of toxic pollution from the Little Blue Run impoundment violate both federal (the Clean Water Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act) and state (Pennsylvania’s Clean Streams) law. The notice letter alleges that FirstEnergy has misrepresented the amount of toxic waste it is releasing from the impoundment in violation of federal right to know laws.

Among the allegations:

— FirstEnergy’s unsafe disposal practices at Little Blue have contaminated surface and groundwater with boron, manganese, sulfate, arsenic, and other pollution in violation of federal waste laws;

— FirstEnergy is discharging selenium and boron from Little Blue directly into the Ohio River at levels that are toxic to fish and other aquatic life, in violation of the terms of the energy company’s Clean Water Act permit. For example, actual loadings of selenium are at least 2.5 to 5.5 times higher than the levels the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection determined could be toxic to fish. Boron concentrations just downstream of the Little Blue River impoundment exceeded water quality criteria every quarter for the last five years of available data;

—  FirstEnergy is discharging arsenic, boron, sulfate, manganese, iron, and other pollution to groundwater in violation of the Pennsylvania Clean Streams Law; and

— FirstEnergy has misreported or failed to report to the EPA thousands of pounds of toxic releases from the Impoundment, keeping private information that is required to be posted for the public.

Curt Havens, vice president, Little Blue Regional Action Group, said:

There is nothing ‘little’ about Little Blue Run: It is a prime example of how communities like ours can be polluted by toxic coal ash. The dumping of coal ash to the large unlined Little Blue Run site has caused widespread pollution in local groundwater, springs, and surface water. And, FirstEnergy is discharging far more selenium than is healthy for fish in the Ohio River.

This file handout photo provided by the Tennessee Valley Authority shows the massive ash spill at the Kingston Fossil Plant in Kingston, Tenn., on Dec. 23, 2008, the day following the spill.  (AP Photo/TVA, File)

Folks over at the Daily Mail continue their somewhat unusual fascination with the topic of coal ash. Following last week’s front-page article, Ry Rivard  had a story yesterday that gave  GOP Rep. David McKinley the chance to say still more about his pet issue — trying to prevent federal regulation of toxic coal ash. As Ry Reported:

Rep. David McKinley on Tuesday stepped up his disagreement with Sen. Jay Rockefeller and said the senator “just doesn’t get” the importance of preventing federal regulators from labeling coal ash as hazardous waste.

McKinley, R-W.Va., said Rockefeller, D-W.Va., is taking a position that could drive up the price of concrete and reduce the number of roads and bridges built in America.

McKinley wants to partially tie the hands of the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate coal ash. The House has passed a bill to do that and also set minimum standards for handling the ash.

Ry followed up today with another story, based largely on Sen. Rockefeller’s press statement saying, basically, that he loves coal ash just as much as Rep. McKinley does:

I want to clear up Congressman McKinley’s misleading comments about my position on coal ash. I do not and have never supported federal efforts to label coal ash as a hazardous waste, and he knows it. Reuse and recycling of coal ash is absolutely in the best interests of West Virginia and the country. We just need to make sure that concerns about health and the environment are addressed, too.

My colleague Paul Nyden produced a similar story, about the back-and-forth press statements from Sen. Rockefeller and Rep. McKinley for today’s Gazette.

The problem with all of this is that there really isn’t much indication that Sen. Rockefeller and Rep. McKinley actually disagree on the fundamentals of the coal-ash issue, and the coverage has probably led to some serious public confusion about what’s going on here.  So let’s review and see if we can clear things up.

OK. First things first. About this “partially tie the hands” of EPA business from Ry’s story.

Much of the debate over coal-ash regulation has for some time hovered around the question of whether EPA should regulate the stuff as a “hazardous waste”.  What that’s really about is whether this stuff should be managed under one or another section of the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

Continue reading…

We’ve asked before here on Coal Tattoo if West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller will really step forward now and lead our state toward sound policies on energy and climate change and, most importantly, our relationship with the coal industry.

Sen. Rockefeller offered West Virginians who desperately want someone to lead on these issues a bit of hope with his reaction to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s new proposal to limit greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants. But truth be told, Sen. Rockefeller only looked so good because our other elected officials and other leaders were so quick to go so far out on the deep end attacking EPA (see, for example, UMWA President Cecil Roberts).

This week, we got at least some other small example that Sen. Rockefeller is willing to step slightly outside of the coal industry’s talking points, when he criticized Rep. David McKinley’s efforts to use a federal transportation bill to block EPA from regulating the handling and disposal of toxic coal ash.  The State Journal’s Pam Kasey reported on this, following up on a Politico report, but here’s the text of Sen. Rockefeller’s statement:

National surface transportation programs are critical to our economy and its continued growth. The Senate passed a responsible, bipartisan two-year surface transportation bill which included common-sense safety provisions and protected hundreds of thousands of jobs. The House never actually voted on a version of the surface legislation and we should focus on finding common ground, not pushing unrelated issues.

Right now, my goal as we begin the conference process is coming up with legislation that protects jobs and investments in our roads and bridges. To remain competitive in the 21st century, we must create a national surface transportation policy that reflects anticipated population growth and provides our safety agencies with authority to protect the citizens who use these systems.

Separately, I want to make it clear that I cannot support the environmental provisions that have been attached to the surface bill by the House. These riders would jeopardize the tremendous bipartisan support this bill has had so far in the Senate.

Contrast that to the contortions that Rep. Nick Rahall had to do on the House floor, as he tried to criticize the Republican version of the overall transportation package, but make sure everyone knew he supported whatever coal-ash language Rep. McKinley and the industry were pushing. Not for nothing, but my good friend Rep. Rahall seems to have done a bit of a flip-flop on coal ash, supporting Rep. McKinley’s effort to block all federal regulation of the material, after previously introducing his own bill that — while different from EPA’s approach — would have established tougher federal oversight.

Continue reading…

Update: Coal ash and Congressman McKinley

Earlier this week, the U.S. House of Representatives added to a major transportation funding bill an amendment from West Virginia’s very own, Rep. David McKinley, to block the federal Environmental Protection Agency from regulating toxic coal ash from the nation’s power plants. As Pam Kasey reported in The State Journal, the amendment was successfully added to the transportation bill on Wednesday. That bill passed the House, and now goes to a conference with the Senate.

Now, we’ve written about the Republican gentleman from West Virginia’s 1st congressional district before and his crusade to protect coal ash and the companies that generate it from reasonable federal regulations (see here, here and here). And remember the coverage of Rep. McKinley’s coal industry campaign support, of the fact that his own constituents have practically begged him not to push this legislation, and that Rep. McKinley hasn’t exactly jumped at the chance to hear those citizen concerns.

One report out from Politico this week made another interesting point about Rep. McKinley and coal ash:

It took freshman GOP Rep. David McKinley of West Virginia just three weeks after being sworn in to introduce a bill that would help a contributor, Arch Coal, by overturning an Environmental Protection Agency ruling that has broader implications for the mining industry, also one of his political patrons.

A month later, McKinley was back, with another bill that would block a proposed EPA regulation against coal-ash bricks and drywall, materials architectural and engineering firms — such as one founded by McKinley — routinely recommend in construction project bids.

Most new House members used their first months in office promoting by-the-book conservative bills — slashing spending and cutting taxes, all designed to show they came to Washington to fix Washington.

But a few like McKinley took a different route: They did things the Washington way, using a legislative process they once railed against to try to assist donors, protect favored industries or settle scores with their political enemies.

McKinley’s bills don’t violate ethics rules because they affect a broad array of businesses, but “appearances count for a lot. To many, this will seem to be payback for benefactors,” said Sheila Krumholz, the Center for Responsive Politics’s executive director. “There is the potential for pay-to-play politics at work, which is something that always should be scrutinized.”

The response from the congressman’s office is about what you would expect:

Katie Martin, a McKinley spokeswoman, said neither piece of legislation should surprise anyone.

“West Virginia is coal, and coal is West Virginia. It’s the economic engine of the state. Cap-and-trade, a direct attack on that way of life, was one of Rep. McKinley’s chief motivations for running. Now that he’s elected, he’s doing what he said he would — fighting tooth and nail to stop the EPA’s war on coal and protect the industry along with the tens of thousands of West Virginians it employs,” she said.

Rep. McKinley himself has shown us he doesn’t always understand his own coal industry legislation, almost as if someone from the industry just gave it to him already written and he introduced it … so it’s not surprising that when confronted with questions about potential conflicts of interest, the congressman’s staff pivots quickly to the standard “war on coal” line that is constant crutch now for our state’s political leadership. Little wonder, too, that Reps. Nick Rahall and Shelley Moore Capito are co-sponsors of McKinley’s coal-ash bill, though at least that created the uncomfortable situation for Rep. Rahall in which he had to twist and contort to make clear his support for the coal-ash amendment, while at the same time leading the Democratic charge against the broader GOP version of the transportation bill it was being attached to. Over in the Senate, West Virginia’s Jay Rockefeller and Joe Manchin are co-sponsors of their own version of the coal-ash bill.

Continue reading…

Groups plan suit over EPA coal-ash delays

Here’s the latest, just announced by Earthjustice:

Environmental and public health groups announced their intent to sue the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in federal court to force the release of long awaited public health safeguards against toxic coal ash. The EPA has delayed the first-ever federal protections for coal ash for nearly two years despite more evidence of leaking ponds, poisoned groundwater supplies and threats to public health.

Earthjustice, on behalf of Appalachian Voices (NC), Chesapeake Climate Action Network (MD), Environmental Integrity Project, French Broad Riverkeeper (NC), Kentuckians For The Commonwealth (KY), Moapa band of Paiutes (NV), Montana Environmental Information Center (MT), Physicians for Social Responsibility, Prairie Rivers Network (IL), Sierra Club and Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (TN), sent the EPA a notice of intent to sue the agency under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). The law requires the EPA to ensure that safeguards are regularly updated to address threats posed by wastes. However, the EPA has never undertaken any action to ensure safeguards address the known threats posed by coal ash, a toxic mix of arsenic, lead, hexavalent chromium, mercury, selenium, cadmium and other dangerous pollutants that result from burning coal at coal-fired power plants.

The notice of intent to sue is available online here.   Earthjustice said in its press release:

Following a spill of more than a billion gallons of coal ash at a disposal pond in Harriman, TN, in December 2008, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson announced in 2009 plans to set federal coal ash regulations by year’s end. In May 2010, the EPA proposed a hybrid regulation to classify coal ash either as hazardous or non-hazardous waste. After eight public hearings across the country and more than 450,000 public comments, the agency decided to delay finalizing the rule amid intense pressure from the coal and power industries.

Despite numerous studies showing the inadequacy of current federal coal ash safeguards to protect public health and the environment as well as documented evidence by the EPA and environmental groups showing coal ash poisoned aquifers and surface waters at 150 sites in 36 states, the EPA continues to fail to adopt federal safeguards. Today’s lawsuit would force the EPA to set deadlines for review and revision of relevant solid and hazardous waste regulations to address coal ash, as well as the much needed and overdue changes to the test that determines whether a waste is hazardous under RCRA.

Earthjustice coal ash expert Lisa Evans said:

Politics and pressure from corporate lobbyists are delaying much needed health protections from coal ash. The law states that the EPA should protect citizens who are exposed to cancer-causing chemicals in their drinking water from coal ash. As we clean up the smokestacks of power plants, we can’t just shift the pollution from air to water and think the problem is solved. The EPA must set strong, federally enforceable safeguards against this toxic menace.