This December will be the 4-year anniversary of the tragic coal ash waste impoundment failure at the Kingston Fossil Plant in Harriman, Tennessee when a billion gallons of toxic coal ash flooded the surrounding residential area and water bodies with extremely dangerous levels of arsenic, mercury, and other toxins.
In May of 2010 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced the proposal for the first-ever national rules to ensure the safe disposal and management of coal ash from coal-fired power plants and the structural integrity of coal ash impoundments. At the time of the announcement, Lisa P. Jackson, EPA Administrator, stated, “The time has come for common-sense national protections to ensure the safe disposal of coal ash. We’re proposing strong steps to address the serious risk of groundwater contamination and threats to drinking water and we’re also putting in place stronger safeguards against structural failures of coal ash impoundments. The health and the environment of all communities must be protected.”
From the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA, the nation’s primary law for regulating solid waste, arose two options for addressing the risks of coal ash management. Simply put, Subtitle C, which creates a comprehensive program of federally enforceable requirements for waste management and disposal, is the option that is clearly more protective of the health and environment of all communities. The other option, Subtitle D does not classify coal ash as hazardous waste, merely sets performance guidelines that are not enforceable by EPA, does not prohibit wet ash storage impoundments, does not require states to comply with minimum national standards for coal ash disposal, does not require utilities to monitor old landfills or waste ponds, does not require states to issue permits, and does not require regulations governing the pre-disposal management of coal ash such as storage, transportation, accidental spills, etc.
After the EPA announced the proposed rules it went out for public comment. Many of you were among the 450,000 people who commented on the proposed rule during the summer of 2010. We’ve been waiting now for two years for a final ruling.
In the meantime, this summer EPA released data showing the number of coal ash disposal ponds and landfills is far greater than previously known. The data released by the EPA to Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice pursuant to a Freedom of Information Act request (FOIA) revealed that there are at least 451 more coal ash ponds and 56 additional landfills than previously acknowledged. Forty-six percent of the 1,161 ponds are not lined, which means there is nothing to prevent contaminates from leaching into water supplies. Forty-three percent of the active and retired landfills are unlined and 53 percent lack leachate collection systems.
Meanwhile, while we’ve been waiting a final ruling, industry has been pushing hard to completely remove EPA’s authority to regulate coal ash altogether. Last summer, legislation introduced by Rep. David B. McKinley (R-WV) to prevent EPA from regulating coal ash was attached to a completely unrelated must-pass transportation bill. Fortunately, that maneuver was thwarted. Then came Senate Bill 3512, the Hoeven-Conrad-Baucus coal ash bill, designed to permanently remove EPA’s authority to regulate coal ash, to eliminate waste ponds, impose regulations on states to issue permits or close leaking and dangerous sites.
Yesterday it was confirmed that the original sponsors of S. 3512 were trying to attach it as an amendment to a military spending bill coming out of the Senate Armed Services Committee. This morning an email arrived from our friends at Earthjustice with news that last night Senator Barbara Boxer, Chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee, spoke on the Senate floor about coal ash and it’s dangers, warning that she would remain in the Senate floor for as long as it would take to ensure that a coal ash rider does not get added to the Department of Defense funding bill.
The battle continues, but its encouraging to know that there are leaders with integrity watching out for our families and our future.