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.