An Update on Coal Ash: In Words and on Film

The story of coal ash keeps going nowhere. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said about coal ash.

A Whole Lot of Ash

Coal is the dirtiest fossil fuel we’ve got. BTU to BTU, we get more pollution from coal than from petroleum and way more than from natural gas. Most of the pollution goes up in smoke, so to speak. It’s emitted as gas (carbon dioxide, mercury, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides) or as fine particles that find their way up through the smokestack and into the atmosphere. (See related story: “Largest U.S. Coal Ash Pond to Close, But Future Rules Still Undecided.”)

But coal has another form of waste — it’s the stuff that’s left behind after the coal has been burned. This coal ash (in the biz you might hear it referred to in more genteel terms as coal combustion residues) contains lots of carbon and a plethora of toxic metals such as arsenic, cadmium, chromium, mercury, lead and a fair bit of radioactive stuff like radium. (For more, see TheGreenGrok’s coal ash series.)

In the United States we produce roughly 130 million tons of coal ash each year with about 40 percent of it being recycled [pdf] — used for concrete and gypsum, for example. The remainder is essentially dumped — placed in lined or unlined holding ponds or landfills — and, at least in theory, left to just sit there in perpetuity.

The Problem: It Doesn’t Just Sit There

Sometimes the stored coal ash breaks out of its holding area, such as what happened at the Kingston coal-fired power plant in Tennessee in December 2008 when a catastrophic break sent coal ash spewing over surrounding areas, including the Emory River.

Most of the time, the toxic material from coal ash ponds slowly leaches out into neighboring streams and lakes.

In either case the legacy is long-term contamination of our nation’s surface waters. (Read more here and here.)

And water contamination isn’t the only problem — there’s also air pollution [pdf]. Coal ash from landfills can be lofted into the air and carried downwind, covering homes, cars and playgrounds located miles away with a coat of black dust — and no doubt placing a fine, little layer of soot in the lungs of the people living nearby.

Coal Ash Up Close and Personal

It’s one thing to talk about pollution from coal ash in the abstract, it’s another when you can put a face to the folks being impacted. Carly Calhoun and Sam Despeaux, filmmakers and photographers from Asheville, North Carolina, have done just that in a series of short documentaries entitled Downwind and Downstream.” All told, it will take you about 20 minutes to watch them; if you’ve got the time, I recommend that you do.

I was especially moved by their short “Things of Intrinsic Worth,” which follows two generations of cowboy/ranchers trying to cope with and halt contamination of the Rosebud Creek from a coal ash retention pond in Colstrip, Montana. At the end of the video the father, Wally McRae, a third-generation rancher and poet (and NEA National Heritage Fellow), provides a guided tour of Colstrip through his original poem about our failure to value intrinsically worthy things. It will blow you away.

How Is Coal Ash Regulated? Not All That Much

Coal ash is not currently designated as hazardous waste by the federal government. It isn’t regulated at all by the federal government. Instead, its disposal is regulated by a patchwork of state rules and regulations, the inadequacy of which are underscored by incidents like the Kingston coal ash spill and air and water pollution caused by coal ash ponds and landfills. Public health and our ecosystems are simply not being protected.

So where is the federal government on this? It’s a sad story of one step forward and one step — sometimes two — backward. The story begins in 1976 with the passage of the Resources Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) followed by the 1980 Solid Waste Disposal Act Amendments, which amended the RCRA to exempt “’fly ash waste, bottom ash waste, slag waste, and flue gas emission control waste generated primarily from the combustion of coal or other fossil fuels.’” The same act called on the Environmental Protection Agency “to study these wastes and submit a Report to Congress evaluating the adverse effects on human health and the environment, if any, from the disposal and utilization of these wastes by October 1982.” Flash forward to 1982. Surprise! No report from EPA — the first missed deadline of many for regulating coal ash. The end result: no federal regulations for coal ash.

And that’s where things stood until 2000. In the waning months of the Clinton administration the Environmental Protection Agency seemed poised to designate coal ash a hazardous pollutant but then two months later made a hasty retreat and proposed to regulate it as a non-hazardous pollutant [pdf]. But that proposal went nowhere when George W. Bush entered the White House, and whatever momentum had been building on coal ash regulation dissipated.

The next push to regulate coal ash came just as the Obama administration took the reins of power. In March of 2009, citing the December 2008 Kingston coal ash spill, then-new EPA administrator Lisa Jackson announced that the agency would promulgate federal regulations on coal ash by the end of the calendar year. The 2009 calendar ended as did three more and the nation remained — and still does — without federal regulation on coal ash.

Can Coal Ash Regulation Be Expected Soon?

Not much has changed in 2013. In January, Mathy Stanislaus, EPA assistant administrator for solid waste and emergency, reportedly told Bloomberg News that EPA “cannot provide a ‘definitive time’ for promulgating final regulations on the management of coal ash from power plants.”

Now we’ve got a new EPA administrator, Gina McCarthy. What are the chances she’ll decide to move aggressively to establish her bona fides as a protector of the environment by moving quickly on coal ash? It’s hard to say. I could not find any statements in her confirmation hearings or elsewhere about coal ash per se. But she is quoted in the New York Times as saying this about coal: ”Coal will continue to be a large part of electric generation in this country for a long time” and ”I just hope it is cleaner.” Does “cleaner” pertain to ash? Maybe, maybe not.

And get a load of this statement about coal ash regulations and McCarthy by Tom Kuhn, the president of Edison Electric Institute, an association that represents all U.S. investor-owned electric companies:

“A number of significant electric power industry issues are on EPA’s regulatory agenda right now, including … coal ash regulations…

Gina has a keen understanding of the challenges facing our industry, and we have had a long and constructive relationship. We will continue to work with her and her team to ensure that EPA considers the environmental benefits, as well as the energy and economic impacts – particularly on customers – of each rulemaking that affects our industry.”

Do you get the feeling the electric utility companies are a bit too comfortable about McCarthy vis-à-vis coal ash? Or are they just whistling through the graveyard or in this case coal ash pond?

If you’re looking for unequivocally positive signs that the federal government is going to move on coal ash regulations, this is about the best I can do: A bill recently passed by the House that would limit EPA’s authority to regulate coal ash is predicted to be “dead on arrival” once it reaches the Senate.

Not much. One thing is for sure: while EPA dithers, the amount of coal ash in retention ponds and landfills continues to grow and the pollution continues to seep and blow.

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