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"Empty Promise": The Broken Federal Commitment Behind the Tennessee Coal Ash Disaster


By Sue Sturgis, Facing South

When Earthjustice Attorney Lisa Evans testified earlier this year before a congressional committee about the looming threat from coal combustion waste, she warned that the federal government's broken pledge to regulate disposal of the potentially dangerous material threatened the health and safety of communities across the country.

Speaking before a June 10 hearing of the House Subcommittee on Energy and Natural Resources titled "How Should the Federal Government Address the Health and Environmental Risks of Coal Combustion Waste?," Evans pointed out that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said in its Regulatory Determination on Wastes from the Combustion of Fossil Fuels published in 2000 that federal standards for disposal of coal combustion waste were needed to protect public health and the environment.

The federal failure to regulate the waste has put 23 states - including Tennessee - in a special bind, since their statutes have "no more stringent" provisions prohibiting them from enacting standards stricter than those found in federal law. Without federal action, those states can't regulate coal combustion waste disposal beyond the few obviously inadequate safeguards that now exist.

Yet the U.S. government's commitment to regulate the very real danger of coal combustion waste - the nation's second-largest industrial waste stream with 129 million tons produced each year - remains "an entirely empty promise," Evans testified [pdf]:

EPA and [the federal Office of Surface Mining] are fiddling while ash from burning coal poisons our water and sickens our communities. Inadequate state laws offer scant protection. Federal environmental statutes dictate that EPA and OSM must do what they promised to do and what they have been directed to do - promulgate enforceable minimum federal standards to protect health and the environment nationwide from the risks posed by mismanagement of coal combustion waste.

Evans' testimony seems almost eerily prescient now in the wake of the disaster that befell an Eastern Tennessee community this week following the collapse of a lagoon holding coal combustion waste from the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston power plant. The resulting deluge inundated 12 nearby homes, buried more than half a square mile in four to six feet of hazardous waste, and blocked a tributary of the Tennessee River, which provides drinking water for millions of people downstream.

TVA, a federally-owned independent corporation, initially estimated the amount of coal sludge released at 1.7 million cubic yards. But after completing an aerial survey of the inundated area, it revised its estimate upward to 5.4 million cubic yards. That's more than 1 billion gallons of waste containing potentially dangerous levels of heavy metals including arsenic, cadmium, mercury and lead, as well as radioactive elements such as uranium and thorium - impurities typically found in coal.

While the company is downplaying the hazardous nature of the material, telling the New York Times that it's "inert" and "not toxic or anything," an assessment by the Environmental Protection Agency found that the risk of getting cancer from coal ash lagoons is 10,000 times greater than safety standards allow.

The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy is warning people to avoid bodily contact with the ash - and calling on government authorities to provide the public with more information on the potential hazards.

"There are multiple pathways in which people can become potentially affected by these heavy metals, including bodily contact, drinking water, air pathways and aquatic wildlife and fish," says SACE Executive Director Dr. Stephen A. Smith, "and we feel that appropriate warnings should be expressed to ensure the safety of Tennessee residents."

* * *

In recent years, the technology for capturing the pollutants from stacks of coal-fired power plants has become more sophisticated, which means coal combustion waste contains even higher concentrations of toxins. But as the Tennessee disaster shows, neither power companies' methods of disposing of this dangerous waste nor government regulations governing the disposal methods have advanced much.

With regulators' blessing, TVA was simply putting ash from its massive Kingston plant - where nine burners consume 14,000 tons of coal a day - into a nearby lagoon where it was mixed with water, allowed to settle and then pumped into what's known as a dredge cell. The company reports that the ash level in the dredge cell at the time of the collapse was unusually high: 55 feet above the water level in the nearby ash pond, with a spokesperson describing the level as "a lot higher than any other internal dredge cell that we have in TVA."

The collapse of the earthen wall holding back the coal sludge came following days of heavy rain. But this was no natural disaster: The company and regulators already knew the structure was prone to failure, with official inspection reports showing at least two other breaches of the same ash lagoon in the past six years.

Because of the toxins in the coal ash sludge, there are now serious concerns about the spill's environmental and public health impacts. TVA says its own preliminary tests indicate there's no danger to water quality in the nearby Tennessee River, though the environmental group United Mountain Defense reports that people living near the plant - many of whom rely on private wells - have experienced prolonged vomiting after drinking their water.

It's still too early to know exactly what the long-term extent and impact of the contamination from the Kingston disaster will be, since authorities have said cleanup could take months and even years. But as Evans testified earlier this year, environmental health threats related to coal combustion waste - particularly wet waste stored in lagoons like the one at the Kingston plant - have already been documented at sites around the country, including:

# contaminated public and private drinking water supplies in at least eight states, including Georgia;

# fish consumption advisories issued in Texas and North Carolina; and

# documented infertility and other abnormalities in nearly 25 species of amphibians and reptiles inhabiting coal combustion waste-contaminated wetlands in South Carolina.

Evans also noted more recent news reports of coal combustion waste contamination discovered in Maryland, Indiana and Montana. And when developers used 1.5 million tons of coal ash to build a golf course over a shallow aquifer in Chesapeake, Va., nearby wells almost immediately began showing elevated boron levels - a marker for coal combustion waste contamination.

Given the clear danger that poorly regulated coal combustion waste presents to the public, it's time for the federal government to take action to prevent another disaster like the one now facing Eastern Tennessee.

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