Thursday, January 15, 2015

EPA Regulates Coal Ash

Earlier this month the EPA set the first national standards for disposal of coal ash from coal-fired power plants, classifying coal ash as solid waste instead of a hazardous material. Coal ash is the toxic byproduct left over when coal is burned to generate electricity. Each year 140 tons of coal ash is produced by the US coal plants.

Coal ash is known to contain lead, thallium arsenic, chromium, selenium and mercury, which can cause respiratory, cardiovascular and neurological problems as well as birth defects and nervous and reproductive system disorders.

"Coal ash contamination is rampant across the country, and the evidence gathered at Mill Creek is unequivocal," said Earthjustice attorney Thom Cmar. "Coal ash has already polluted more than 200 lakes, rivers, streams and drinking waters. The problem continues to worsen, but no federal protections exist. Our household garbage is better regulated than this toxic waste."

The EPA's announcement comes in the wake of a number of major coal ash spills. Here is a chronological litany of some of the bigger spills.

  • The largest coal ash spill in the US occurred in 2008 when the Kingston Fossil thermal power plant some 40 miles west of Knoxville, Tennessee dumped an estimated 5.4 million cubic yards of wet coal ash.
  • In 1972, the Pittston Coal Company spilled 132,000,000 gallons of coal ash into the Guyandotte River in WV.
  • In 1981, the Eastover Mining Company spilled 25,000,000 gallons of coal ash into the Cumberland River in KY.
  • In 1987, the Peabody Coal Company spilled 23,000,000 gallons of coal ash into the Coal River in WM. 
  • In 1994, the Massey Energy Company spilled 112,000,000 gallons of coal ash into the Big Sandy River in KY. 
  • In 2000, Massey Energy Company spilled 309,000,000 gallons of coal ash into the Big Sandy River in KY. 
  • In 2014, the Obed Mountain coal mine spilled 264 million gallons of coal slurry spill near Hinton, Alberta in Canada.
  • In 2014 there was a 6,000 gallon coal slurry spill into the Similkameen River near Princeton, British Colombia.
In 2014 a few other coal ash spills made headlines including ones from Patriot Coal, Freedom industries and Duke Energy.

Sometimes the spills appear to be deliberate as was the case in 2014, when LG&E’s Mill Creek Generating Station, was filmed dumping coal ash into local waterways.

60 Minutes produced this ground breaking investigative report showing how Jack Spadero, an engineer for the National Mine Health and Safety Academy was fired after he blew the whistle on a white wash investigation into the 300 million gallon coal slurry spill by Massey Energy.

The new rules are heralded by a coalition of 120 organizations including the Sierra Club which sent a letter to the White House requesting the Obama Administration “finalize strong safeguards for coal ash."

Although traditionally coal ash regulation is in the hands of state governments, their woeful inaction has forced the federal government to get involved.

Part of the EPA's new rules involve unprecedented transparency. They will require comprehensive and regular disclosures and record keeping that will enable concerned parties to monitor and oversee coal ash management. Information will be available on publicly accessible websites and will include: annual groundwater monitoring results, and corrective action reports, coal ash fugitive dust control plans, and closure completion notifications. Most importantly the new rules demand that coal ash be responsibly recycled.

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