Monday, November 14, 2011

Dangerous Coal Ash Still Unregulated

"In other words, there is no reason to believe that the spill in Kingston, Tennessee in 2008, which released a billion gallons of toxic coal sludge over 300 acres of land, was a one-time event. There are no federal regulations for coal ash ponds, just a patchwork of weak and often unenforced state regulations."

Sierra Club:
Coal ash has made its way back in the news again after a bluff caved in at WE Energies Oak Creek Power Plant releasing the hazardous waste into Lake Michigan. The collapsing bluff swept away trailers and other construction equipment leaving a debris field 120 yards long and 50-80 yards wide at the bottom. Unfortunately, it’s not just accidents that are resulting in coal ash polluting our waters. The Badger, Lake Michigan’s historical coal-burning ferry, dumps 4 tons of coal ash each trip it makes across the lake.

Coal ash, or coal combustion residuals (CCRs), are the stuff that is left over after coal is burned and constitutes one of the nation’s largest streams of waste. Coal ash contains many heavy metals and toxins such as lead, mercury, arsenic, selenium, cadmium, barium and others. Currently it is largely unregulated and is mostly stored in giant unlined ponds that are hundreds of acres in size.

Coal ash was brought to the nation’s attention in December 2008 when a TVA coal ash pond broke in Kingston, Tennessee, spilling billions of gallons of coal ash into the Emory, Clinch and Tennessee Rivers. The spill has cost $1 billion, and, over two years later, still employs 450 people six days a week to clean it up. So for those of you at home keeping count, that’s 550 workers in Tennessee shoveling coal out of the ground, and 450 workers scooping toxic coal sludge off the ground.

The EPA is working on creating stricter regulations for coal ash use. Under EPA’s proposed regulations, large coal ash fill sites would be considered as hazardous waste disposal and would have to be identified and monitored. These kind of regulations are especially important for sites like WE Energies that have placed coal ash in or on unsteady ground. UW-Milwaukee geologist Tom Hooyer says “The bluffs along Lake Michigan are in constant recession. They recess a foot per year on average.”

WE Energies power plant site used coal ash as “structural fill” in the 1950s but unfortunately this haphazard process continues to be used today. According to the 2009 report from the American Coal Ash Association more than 8.8 million tons were used for similar projects. The proposed regulations would also transition the Badger from burning coal to oil.

Unfortunately, the House of Representatives have just passed a bill that would handcuff EPA’s ability to move forward with strong coal ash disposal safeguards for our communities and the same bill has been introduced into the Senate. Coal ash disposal is not simply an environmental issue but an important public health issue.

More information:
» Appalachian Voices: "Dangerous Coal Ash Ponds Common"
» EPA's Coal Ash Disposal Rules
» CBS: "How did we get to a place where coal ash is in products without anybody knowing?"

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