Congress Comes Together to Set Modified Terms for Coal Ash Disposal

by | Sep 19, 2016

coalIt looks as Congress will amend the Solid Waste Disposal Act that sets the terms for coal ash disposal. Both chambers have passed similar measures that, in essence, would give the states more say when it comes setting such standards — a rare and seemingly uncommon agreement between a divided congress.

“While the House still must approve the Senate bill, S. 2848 would provide welcome improvements for EPA’s coal ash rule,” said Baker Botts D.C. Environmental partner, Bart Seitz. “The adoption of state permit programs for implementing and enforcing the EPA’s technical standards for coal ash landfills and impoundments should provide greater regulatory certainty for industry, and could limit the need for enforcement via private citizen suit actions.”

At present, most such waste is buried in landfills, although those sites must keep a safe distance from surface and groundwater supplies — what critics label as a “loophole” that endangers the poor. For coal ash buried on utility grounds, the ponds need to be properly lined to keep the waste from bleeding out.

Coal power plants produce about 140 million tons of coal ash a year, at roughly 1,100 sites in 37 states. The waste contains arsenic, mercury and selenium that is harmful to human health and the environment.

Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment just did a study that found 21 unlined disposal sites had leaks in five southeastern states. “In all the investigated sites, we saw evidence of leaking,” said Avner Vengosh, a professor of geochemistry and water quality. “Some of the impacted water had high levels of contaminants.”

Utilities with major coal ash sites include American Electric Power Co., First Energy Corp., NRG Energy, Southern Co. and Scana Corp.‘s Santee Cooper, which has said that it recycles as much as 90 percent of its coal ash in good economic times. They are now tasked with how to dispose of their coal ash, which the EPA has said is a “solid waste” and that it can be recycled. 

The chief concern among environmentalists — and everyone else — is to avoid the type of accidents that occurred in the territories of Duke and the Tennessee Valley Authority; both regions suffered from awful coal spills that have been blights on the surrounding communities that are extremely expensive to remedy.

A dam burst at TVA’s Kingston facility near Knoxville, Tenn. on December 22, 2008, releasing 5.4 million cubic yards of “wet coal ash” into the local communities there — considered one of the worst environmental disasters in American history. Five years later Duke Energy also had a coal ash spill that released 100,000 cubic yards of waste into the nearby Dan River. The river turned completely grey.

Utilities are trying to deal with issue by converting wet ash to dry ash and then burying it lined pools. Existing sites, though, remain a sticking point, with utilities saying that some sites are perfectly safe and that moving the ash would be more problematic.

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