Environmental Protection

Groups Rally for Coal Ash Regs, EPA Responds

More than 100 national and grassroots environmental organizations -- including Environmental Integrity Project, Earthjustice, Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, Greenpeace, National Wildlife Federation, Public Citizen, Environment America, and the Clean Air Task Force -- joined forces to urge U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson to regulate coal ash (also known as coal combustion waste).

On March 9, Jackson's office laid out new efforts to prevent future threats to human health and the environment related to coal ash impoundments.

The agency’s plan includes measures to

  • gather critical coal ash impoundment information from electrical utilities nationwide,
  • conduct on-site assessments to determine structural integrity and vulnerabilities,
  • order cleanup and repairs where needed, and
  • develop new regulations for future safety.

"Environmental disasters like the one last December in Kingston should never happen anywhere in this country,” said EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson. “That is why we are announcing several actions to help us properly protect the families who live near these facilities and the places where they live, work, play, and learn.”

The December 2008 release of coal ash from TVA’s Kingston, Tenn., facility flooded more than 300 acres of land, damaging homes and property. Coal ash from the release flowed into the Emory and Clinch rivers, filling large areas of the rivers and killing fish. TVA cost estimates for the clean-up range between $525 million and $825 million, which does not include long-term cleanup.

EPA sent out letters on March 9 requesting that electric utilities that have surface impoundments or similar units provide information about the structural integrity of their units. EPA estimates there may be as many as 300 such units. These information requests are legally enforceable.

Working closely with other federal agencies and the states, EPA will review the information provided by the facilities to identify impoundments or similar units that need priority attention. EPA also will visit many of these facilities to see first hand if the management units are structurally sound.

The agency will require appropriate remedial action at any facility that is found to pose a risk for potential failure.

The assessment and analysis of all such units located at electric utilities in the U.S. will be compiled in a report and made available to the public.

EPA is also moving forward quickly to develop regulations to address the management of coal combustion residuals. EPA anticipates having a proposed rule ready for public comment by the end of the year.

More information on the letter to electric utilities, go to http://www.epa.gov/epawaste/nonhaz/industrial/special/fossil/coalashletter.htm

The joint letter from the environmental groups was sent in the face of the ongoing threat posed by nearly a hundred million tons of toxic coal ash and related coal combustion waste dumped in ponds, pits, and mines across the United States.

"The wet storage or disposal of coal combustion waste should be phased out," according to the letter. "All containment structures around coal combustion waste surface impoundments should be examined immediately to ensure their structural stability, and contained wastes should be transferred to lined and consistently covered landfills located outside of floodplains. Active surface impoundments should be closed and emptied within two years. Monitoring and clean-up standards should be required for impoundments that have already closed, and any remaining ash should be transferred to dry disposal sites within five years."

The letter also asks EPA to mandate safe disposal of dry ash, which has caused significant environmental harm when mismanaged. The letter notes: "Regulations should apply to all forms of land disposal, not just surface impoundments, and should be designed to prevent slow leaks as well as catastrophic structural failures. EPA's 2007 'Human and Ecological Risk Assessment from Coal Combustion Wastes' documented the highest cancer risks from surface impoundments, but also found unacceptable health risks from clay-lined coal combustion waste landfills leaking arsenic into groundwater."

A copy of the joint letter can be read at http://www.environmentalintegrity.org/pub608.cfm.

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