In less than a month, the question of how to dispose of coal-combustion waste has gone from a largely ignored issue to a pressing national environmental concern that has sparked legislative proposals and the prospect of new regulation.
WASHINGTON — In less than a month, the question of how to dispose of coal-combustion waste has gone from a largely ignored issue to a pressing national environmental concern that has sparked legislative proposals and the prospect of new regulation.
Since the Dec. 22 coal-ash spill at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s (TVA) Kingston Fossil Plant, which poured a billion gallons of toxic material over 300 acres, lawmakers and regulators have said the federal government should revisit an issue it has deliberated about for 30 years. Although President-elect Obama has identified climate change as one of his top policy priorities, addressing coal ash may come first.
Burning coal produces more than 129 million tons annually of combustion waste — a concentrated ash that includes toxic elements such as arsenic, lead, cadmium, selenium and mercury — but federal authorities have yet to establish uniform standards for handling it.
“The threats are out there, and we know it now. And we also know how we need to address them,” said House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., who introduced legislation last week calling for tighter controls on coal-ash ponds, which are piles of combustion waste suspended in water. “As we often see in the coal fields across the country, it takes a disaster before we see decisive action.”
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Congress raised the prospect of regulating coal ash as a hazardous waste in 1980, but regulators moved slowly until March 2000, when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said it planned to designate it a “contingent hazardous waste.” After electric utilities protested that such a move would cost billions, then-EPA Administrator Carol Browner reversed herself and determined that coal ash amounted to a solid waste. The agency pledged to issue regulations on the matter nonetheless, but it failed to do so in the eight years since President Bush took office.
The amount of coal-combustion waste produced each year has increased by nearly one-third since 1990, and there are up to 1,300 coal-ash ponds across the nation. According to a report last week by the environmental law firm Earthjustice, each year about 25 million tons of coal ash are dumped into active and abandoned mines, where it often goes directly into groundwater. The EPA determined last year that coal ash has contaminated water in 24 states.
Lisa Evans, an Earthjustice attorney, said mining communities that already confront other environmental threats are faced with another source of contamination that may pollute their water for years.
“The last thing these communities need is a toxic-waste dump where their mine was,” said Evans, adding that in filling old mines with coal ash, “there’s a very simplistic notion that you’re returning coal to where it came from, so it’s not going to cause any problems.”
Matthew Hale, who directs the EPA’s solid-waste office, said that although the agency has yet to issue formal coal-ash regulations, “we will be bringing this forward very quickly to reach a decision on the path forward, and that’s the time when we’ll be able to have a timetable. … Clearly, the dam failure at TVA puts a sense of urgency on the issue of addressing the stability of the dams.”
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who chairs the Environment and Public Works Committee, asked EPA administrator-nominee Lisa Jackson during her confirmation hearing last week what she would do to police coal-ash ponds and other storage sites that have gone unregulated.
Jackson pledged to conduct an immediate inventory of the deposits, if confirmed, and added: “The EPA currently has, and has in the past, assessed its regulatory options, and I think it is time to re-ask those questions.”