Update: 12/18/2009 - The Environmental Protection Agency announced it will delay its decision on coal ash.
"EPA's pending decision on regulating coal ash waste from power plants, expected this month, will be delayed for a short period due to the complexity of the analysis the agency is currently finishing." (Read EPA's full statement here.)
As the anniversary of last year's massive coal ash spill in Tennessee draws near, the government is poised to announce whether the toxic stuff will finally and officially be classified as hazardous. Or not.
One of the dirty, not-so-secret facts about coal (even so-called "clean coal") is that after you've extracted all the energy you can from it, you're left with a toxic residue made up of several kinds of waste -- collectively it's called coal ash. And we in the U.S.A. are in no shortage of the stuff. To wit ...
- The United States generates more than 120 million tons of coal waste each year. (See earlier post.)
- Almost 72 million tons of this waste is disposed of in waste ponds and landfills around the country.
- There are about 900 of these sites located in just about every state. (This tally may not include all inactive units.)
- The toxic brew of coal ash waste includes such substances as lead, arsenic and radioactive compounds, to name a few.
Why the Hazardous Classification Is Important for Coal Ash
In the United States, we have laws and regulations governing how waste is dealt with. The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) classifies waste as either non-hazardous (subtitle D) or hazardous (subtitle C). Only hazardous wastes must be tracked from cradle to grave.
Also, if a waste is classified as hazardous, the law allows for two important safeguards not applied to non-hazardous wastes:
- It authorizes the federal government to regulate landfills and impoundments according to a set of strict standards.
- It requires more safety features to protect the environment and human health.
The Environmental Protection Agency determines whether a waste is hazardous or not.
Without the 'Hazardous' Label, Communities Are at Risk
Despite its toxic properties, coal ash is currently not regulated as a hazardous waste. Instead, it's managed by a hodgepodge of state regulations that often fail to adequately protect ecosystems or public health and clearly do not always safeguard against dangerous spills and accidents. (See the laws governing coal ash in your state; just type the name of your state before the dot html in the URL.)
Late in the Clinton administration a rather feeble attempt to designate the waste as hazardous went nowhere and the little-known potential problem of coal ash seemed to disappear. Until, that is, December 22, 2008, when more than one billion gallons of coal ash slurry burst through a dike at a Tennessee Valley Authority coal plant in Kingston, Tennessee, pouring toxic sludge into the Emory River and surrounding areas.
In no time, the public got the dirt on what had been up to then the coal industry's dirty little secret. And the more we learned, the more there was to worry about: huge amounts of coal ash, it turned out, sit in storage sites across the country, posing a public danger thanks to inadequate regulation. As the RCRA states, "the placement of inadequate controls on hazardous waste management will result in substantial risks to human health and the environment."
TVA Spill Prompted Action, but Where Are We Now?
Shortly after being sworn in as EPA administrator, Lisa Jackson promised action, indicating that EPA would:
- assess the safety of existing coal ash impoundments (which was done, with mixed results) and
- determine whether coal ash should be regulated as a hazardous pollutant.
EPA says that an announcement on whether it will start designating coal ash as a hazardous pollutant will be made by the end of 2009.
In the meantime, the Government Accounting Office opined on the subject last month, floating a hybrid option that would designate coal ash as a hazardous material if it's kept wet and non-hazardous if it's moved to a dry landfill. However, evidence showing that toxic materials are just as likely to be released from dry units as wet (see here and here for examples) would seem to argue against such an approach.
And of course Congressional representatives got into the act at a hearing last Thursday before the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee.
The camps for and against the hazardous designation seemed to split largely around where the House member hailed from. Representatives from coal-producing states or areas heavily reliant on coal-fired power argued that regulating coal ash as a hazardous waste would raise electricity costs and limit the putative beneficial uses of coal combustion wastes (such as in concrete products and mining applications).
Au contraire, cried those in favor of the hazardous classification -- it would improve recycling as it would be more competitive with hazardous rather than solid waste disposal costs. (Feeling brave? Listen to the debate here.)
Richard Moore, TVA's inspector general, told the subcommittee that TVA is finally "marching in the right direction," the Chattanooga Times Free Press reported.
But environmental groups are looking at TVA's march in the wrong direction last year from the Kingston spill, reportedly wanting TVA to be prosecuted for the pollution and damage the spill caused.
And there's the rub. The key issues in the hazardous waste designation are the need to safeguard ecosystems, human health and water supplies -- protections that were not in place for last year's spill and the subsequent ones that made headlines shortly thereafter. Presumably such protection is EPA's main concern as it considers its decision.
And so we wait for Jackson's announcement on whether coal ash is hazardous or not.
Here's my hunch: if coal ash does end up with a hazardous label, the announcement will come on December 22, the one-year anniversary of the Kingston spill. If the decision goes the other way and coal ash remains unregulated, expect the announcement mmm, probably on a Friday, possibly late in the afternoon.
Of course, it's also possible that the hazardous waste designation is being held as a bargaining chip on climate legislation for the coal industry; and if that's the case, don't expect a decision anytime soon.
More on Coal Ash Waste
- The Green Grok's coverage
- Nicholas School slide show of the spill at the TVA Kingston Plant
- Outside the Law Restoring Accountability to the Tennessee Valley Authority [pdf] - a new report by the Environmental Integrity Project details how TVA has used its federal status to circumvent environmental regulations.