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EPA Study Finds Dangers in Coal Ash Ponds Nationwide

By Stacy Morford

Sep 1, 2009

The toxic flood of coal ash that spilled from a TVA impoundment into Tennessee’s Emory River last winter was a wake-up call for the EPA about the dangers of wet ash storage.

The agency didn’t regulate coal ash at the time and it still doesn’t, but in March, the Obama administration EPA began surveying hundreds of power facilities to assess the danger.

The results of that survey are out now, courtesy of a Freedom of Information Act request from the environmental law firm Earthjustice, and the data show the potential dangers to ground water and nearby property are more widespread than anyone realized.

The majority of the 584 wet coal ash impoundments on the list are over three decades old, many were designed without the expertise of professional engineers, and few of their owners could offer recent state or federal inspection dates. The survey showed that the largest sites, some spreading across dozens of acres, also tend to be the older sites with the least protection.

Age can be a serious problem, both in the impoundments’ structural integrity and because older waste impoundments built before the 1980s typically weren’t lined to keep chemicals from leaching into the ground water. In fact, a 1999 EPA estimate found that only of the wet coal ash ponds in the country were lined.

The chemicals inside those ponds include arsenic, lead, mercury and other toxins that can be harmful to human health. A 2002 federal assessment and a both found high cancer risks from groundwater near unlined and clay-lined impoundments — 1-in-50 in some areas — but the dangers until the Obama administration took over the EPA this year.

That delay of the health risk information and December's spill of more than 1 billion gallons of coal ash slurry from the TVA's Kingston power plant impoundment left more questions about just how safe the nation's coal ash disposal really is.

“Communities have a right to know the dangers posed by these largely unlined, unmonitored, and uninspected impoundments,” Earthjustice attorney Lisa Evans said.

“Increased cancer risks, poisoned drinking water supplies, the possibility of a lingering threat for decades all mean that the EPA must regulate coal ash as hazardous waste to ensure that all communities are protected.”

So far, regulation of coal ash impoundments has been left to the states, creating a patchwork with only some states requiring liners and few requiring the compound, double-liners considered the best practice.

Several of the big coal producing and disposing states have almost no regulations regarding coal ash at all, Evans said – Alabama, Indiana, and Tennessee, to name a few.

“There’s no reason for any modern power plant to produce a wet ash that must be handled in waste ponds that can collapse,” Evans said. "It’s essential that these waste ponds be phased out."

The earlier this month that it would do just that, converting its six wet-ash storage ponds at coal-fired power plants in Alabama, Kentucky and Tennessee to dry ash within the next decade.

The change from wet to dry wouldn’t require significant changes in the power stations themselves, only in the process after the coal is burned. Wet-ash plants use water to wash the remaining ash out and then store the slurry in large, man-made ponds. Dry ash, on the other hand, is vacuumed out, then either recycled for other uses, stored in structures or buried in a landfill.

Attachment Size
Coal Ash Survey Results.pdf 199.33 KB

Dangers of As, Hg & Pb or Arsenic, Mercury & Lead, not known?

You must have really read a lot into that. Every bit of info on the EPA website is public info. Don't give the Obama admin credit for making this issue public. And as for the public not knowing these elements are dangerous, you obviously have not spent much time looking them up on any health site. Everyone knows arsenic is a deadly poison and that lead & mercury kill brain cells. Lead is so dangerous that Ducks Unlimited lobbied to get it taken out of gun-shot. Mercury is not sold over the counter except in thermometers & thermostats. And arsenic is verry difficult to purchase and you'd better have a very good reason.

Are your lights on? Is your air conditioner on? Are your tv & radio on? Then you're contributing to the coal ash problem since 90% of the US electricity comes from coal fired power plants. But the majority of our electricity is used in the manufacturing processes so every time you just have to have that latest gadget or gizmo, you're contributing to global pollution. Stop the insatiability and the pollution will subside. Then we can work on cleaning it up.

Just another environmental scientist

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