Coal ash spill reveals risks, lapses in waste regulation

Jan 08, 2009 By Renee Schoof

The coal ash spill in Tennessee last month is putting a spotlight on whether the ash from 450 other power plants around the country could be contaminating the nation's drinking water supplies.

Some coal ash is recycled into products such as cement or placed in secure landfills, but much of it ends up in gravel pits, abandoned mines and unlined landfills - or in ponds like the one that burst in Kingston, Tenn., on Dec. 22. In the Tennessee incident, 5.4 million cubic yards of sludge laced with arsenic and other toxic materials poured over 300 acres - making it one of the nation's worst environmental spills.

The EPA in 2000 decided that coal ash wasn't hazardous waste and left regulation up to the states. Now, however, environmental activists say the Tennessee spill shows the need for federal standards for how coal waste is handled at the coal-fired power plants around the nation.

"It's an insanely dangerous scenario that's been allowed to develop, but it's all under the radar screen," said Jeffrey Stant of the Environmental Integrity Project, a group formed by former EPA enforcement attorneys that's compiling data on coal ash disposal sites.

Stant said most states have lax regulations and that much of the monitoring is done on a voluntary basis by the utilities that own the plants that burn the coal.

He and other activists want the EPA to start with banning the common practice of sluicing coal waste into ponds and storing it there.

"When you put it along a river in an unlined lagoon, you threaten to contaminate the shallow alluvial aquifer that's right under the river," which provides drinking water, Stant said. He said he had no faith in the scientific evidence produced by the utility companies.

The Tennessee Valley Authority says tests show Kingston's drinking water is safe.

"We're not doing anything different than other utilities that have coal plants," said TVA spokesman Gil Francis. About half of the TVA coal waste is put in wet ponds like the one at Kingston, and the rest is compacted in dry ponds. TVA inspects the ponds annually, the state checks them quarterly, and TVA employees look at them daily, he said.

TVA, a corporation owned by the federal government, operates the plant at Kingston where spill occurred. The Kingston Fossil Plant was the largest coal-burning power plant in the world when it began operating in 1955. The plant normally consumes about 14,000 tons of coal a day.

TVA is the largest U.S. public power company, providing electricity to 9 million people in Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Virginia. It produces 60 percent of that electricity from coal at 11 plants completed mostly in the 1950s. The newest came online in the mid-1960s.

The House Committee on Natural Resources this week started considering whether to propose a law that would impose federal regulations on coal ash waste stored in ponds such as the one in Tennessee, said committee chief of staff Jim Zoia.

Steve Smith of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, said that states have tended to defer to utility companies to take care of the waste, and the EPA has depended on industry to fill out voluntary surveys.

"It's clearly been neglected for the past eight or nine years but it's a problem that's only going to get worse as we do a better job of controlling air pollution," he said. "As you clean coal up, you can't just make the dirty stuff disappear. It's got to go somewhere."

Smith said he wants "some federal leadership to properly characterize this problem and get aggressive in setting up regulatory standards that people have some confidence in."

EPA spokeswoman Tisha Petteway said the American Coal Ash Association, which is made up of coal-fired power utilities and others that produce coal combustion waste, is the source of information about how much coal ash is generated in the country each year. EPA also measures toxic releases from individual plants.

Petteway said the latest data, an EPA and Energy Department survey from 1993, estimated there are about 300 surface ponds at electric power plants like the one in Tennessee.

"The majority of states" require controls on the site, liners in landfills and groundwater monitoring, Petteway said. The effectiveness of the protection, however, depends on whether states use the authority they have, she said in a written response to questions.

States are regulating coal ash more as new plants are added, she said.

Jim Roewer of the Utility Solid Waste Activities Group, a lobby group devoted to keeping the non-hazardous status of coal combustion waste, said he expects the Tennessee spill will be used in a new discussion of what national standards might be imposed, but his group believes they're not needed because state regulation works.

"Utilities are working to manage the ash responsibly," he said.

Roewer said there are about 600 coal ash disposal sites - about 45 percent of them surface ponds, and the rest landfills.

Lisa Evans, an attorney with Earthjustice, a law firm, said it's easier to say which state does a good job of regulation - Wisconsin - than to list the many who handle it poorly.

Nationally, coal combustion waste is estimated at more than 129 million tons a year, she said. The problem, she said, is that because of a lack of federal oversight, "we don't know where it goes."


© 2009, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
Visit the McClatchy Washington Bureau on the World Wide Web at>

Explore further: US delays decision on Keystone pipeline project

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Detecting diamonds with X-ray technology

Apr 02, 2014

X-rays penetrate objects and reveal information about its contents. Using two X-ray spectra, you can identify different materials. And now, a new algorithm is making it possible to find diamonds in the rock.

3D model measures coal ash spill

Feb 27, 2014

With a 3D model created using aerial images from an unmanned aircraft, Wake Forest researchers are providing a new look at the extent of coal ash contaminants leaked into a North Carolina river earlier this ...

Scientists look deeper for coal ash hazards

Nov 29, 2010

( -- As the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency weighs whether to define coal ash as hazardous waste, a Duke University study identifies new monitoring protocols and insights that can help investigators ...

Disposal of spilled coal ash a long, winding trip

Mar 05, 2010

(AP) -- More than a year after a Tennessee coal ash spill created one of the worst environmental disasters of its kind in U.S. history, the problem is seeping into several other states.

Toxic Coal Ash Threatens Health And Environment

Aug 18, 2009

( -- Exposure to dust and river sediment containing toxic metals and radioactivity from a coal ash spill at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston power plant last December could pose risks ...

Recommended for you

US delays decision on Keystone pipeline project

Apr 18, 2014

The United States announced Friday a fresh delay on a final decision regarding a controversial Canada to US oil pipeline, saying more time was needed to carry out a review.

New research on Earth's carbon budget

Apr 18, 2014

( —Results from a research project involving scientists from the Desert Research Institute have generated new findings surrounding some of the unknowns of changes in climate and the degree to which ...

User comments : 3

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1 / 5 (1) Jan 09, 2009
Considering the 4000 better methods to deal with coal waste this is just absolutely ignorant of the coal plant proprietors. Don't let this be a shot at coal, this should be a shot at the greed of that power company. I'd recommend waste storage regulations and effective fining or jail time for offenders.
not rated yet Jan 09, 2009
What if we used the ash from coal plants to supplement the soil around the plants? Ash is really good for gardens, if combined with the soil in just the right mix. We could grow trees, flowers, ect. all around the power plants. A large portion of the emmitted CO2 would be used by the plants(the garden ones, not the coal burning ones), the landscape would be much prettier, and the ash wouldn't have to be transported over large distances, thus reducing the chances of accidents.
not rated yet Jan 09, 2009
What if we used the ash from coal plants to supplement the soil around the plants? Ash is really good for gardens, if combined with the soil in just the right mix. We could grow trees, flowers, ect. all around the power plants. A large portion of the emmitted CO2 would be used by the plants(the garden ones, not the coal burning ones), the landscape would be much prettier, and the ash wouldn't have to be transported over large distances, thus reducing the chances of accidents.

Just one of many thousands of better ways to handle the ash. In this particular case you'd have to react away the slightly radioactive waste as well as make the other toxins inert. Possibly more costly than other alternatives but it's quite possible.

More news stories

China says massive area of its soil polluted

A huge area of China's soil covering more than twice the size of Spain is estimated to be polluted, the government said Thursday, announcing findings of a survey previously kept secret.

UN weather agency warns of 'El Nino' this year

The UN weather agency Tuesday warned there was a good chance of an "El Nino" climate phenomenon in the Pacific Ocean this year, bringing droughts and heavy rainfall to the rest of the world.

NASA's space station Robonaut finally getting legs

Robonaut, the first out-of-this-world humanoid, is finally getting its space legs. For three years, Robonaut has had to manage from the waist up. This new pair of legs means the experimental robot—now stuck ...

Ex-Apple chief plans mobile phone for India

Former Apple chief executive John Sculley, whose marketing skills helped bring the personal computer to desktops worldwide, says he plans to launch a mobile phone in India to exploit its still largely untapped ...

Filipino tests negative for Middle East virus

A Filipino nurse who tested positive for the Middle East virus has been found free of infection in a subsequent examination after he returned home, Philippine health officials said Saturday.

Egypt archaeologists find ancient writer's tomb

Egypt's minister of antiquities says a team of Spanish archaeologists has discovered two tombs in the southern part of the country, one of them belonging to a writer and containing a trove of artifacts including reed pens ...