Thursday, December 18, 2014

EPA Expected To Decide On Coal Ash Friday

Ken O’Brien

At the October 20th meeting of the Southbridge Town Council resident John Pulawski kicked off a new round of controversy regarding the town’s landfill. He alleged that toxic materials were being used as cover for the site. Specifically he referred to coal ash as the culprit.

Subsequently representatives of the Board of Health disputed Mr. Pulawski’s claims. The stated that the EPA had not defined coal ash as a toxic substance. Therefore, they contended, it was just one more instance of Mr. Pulawski crying wolf.

The reality of the situation is that coal ash is a hazardous material. The additional reality is that the combined influences of major energy producers and consumers have stymied the efforts to regulate it.

The Environmental Protection Agency is expected to announce Friday what it plans to do about regulating and setting a standard for coal ash. Environmentalists fear it won't be enough.

Around the nation, there are more than 1,000 unlined pits and ponds filled with fly ash, a byproduct of burning pulverized coal. The stuff is laced with arsenic, mercury, copper, barium, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury, nickel, thallium and other toxins—all of which can leach into the soil and groundwater. These dumps are barely scrutinized by regulators.

As a result, small spills occur frequently, tainting water supplies and poisoning the ground. Occasionally, a bigger spill will occur, such as the one in Tennessee in December 2008. That sent 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash—1.1 billion gallons of slurry—into a river and 300 acres of the surrounding land. That's more than three times as much as the owners of the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston Fossil Plant said was in their coal ash pond when a containing wall collapsed. Final tab for the clean-up was close to a billion dollars.

Nine months ago, 39,000 tons of coal ash from a Duke Energy waste pond spilled into the Dan River of North Carolina, prompting a clean-up that only managed to recapture 3,000 tons. The state has 33 coal ash ponds, 14 considered especially problematic. Consequently, in August, North Carolina passed new regulations claiming to be the strongest in the nation. The Southern Environmental Law Center, which has pressed for stronger regulations of coal ash, views the new law as "fundamentally flawed."

Utilities have successfully kept the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating coal ash as hazardous. In 1999, when the EPA moved in this direction, utilities squawked that it would cost the industry $5 billion in compliance costs and the Clinton administration flinched, telling EPA to back off, which it did. The question now is whether EPA scientists and regulators have changed their minds or taken the same stance as 15 years ago under the onslaught of the latest utility lobbying effort:

“It will be incredibly disappointing and reckless if EPA doesn’t solve the problem that it knows how to solve,” said Lisa Evans, an attorney for Earthjustice. […]
If the EPA declares coal ash a hazardous waste it will mean strict and costly new rules for the material, backed up with federal enforcement. But if the agency decides it’s non-hazardous, the new requirements will be more modest and citizens might have to sue to get them enforced. 

Most close observers think the EPA has decided again that coal ash is non-hazardous. If so, we can expect modest improvement in regulating the stuff. We can also expect incoming Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Sen. Jim Inhofe to stand in the way of enforcing any new rules, no matter how modest.


  1. Approx, 50 % (percent) of America’s electricity is coal produced.

    Capitalism will continue to WIN over any documented environmental/health issues.

  2. the environmental message has been Coal is dirty so switch to gas - Gas demands can't be met without a new pipeline.
    Pipelines are dangerous and not in my back yard - Electricity prices spike because of less production and restrictions on it's production. 37% increase in cost passed on to you and me .
    Consumerism will continue to lose out and pay more while still trying somehow to stay warm this winter. I hope Santa puts coal in my stocking as I know where to put the ash.

  3. Why aren't we allowed to dispose of our own coal ash in Southbridge? Is bottom ash cleaner than the coal ash from a stove?

  4. Did the Board of Health Chairman say Pulawski was crying wolf.? I can not think of an instance when his concerns about the landfill were not prudent. One can disagree about his opinion about the referendum, his attempts to get elected to public office, or his opposition to replacing chlorine with chloramine, but regarding the landfill he has been spot on.

    Consider the statement of a Councilor Marcucci in January of 2013, the only former Board of Health Chair that has been on the Council these past seven years, who stated that Pulawski has been right about the landfill 100% of the time.


All comments subject to moderation. All commenters must use their own name or a screen name. No comments labelled as "Anonymous" will be published. To use your name or a screen name select "Name/URL" from the drop down menu. Insert you name in the "Name" space and leave the "URL" space blank.