Obama Administration Grade on Coal Ash: Failing

Yes, failing … just like the coal ash ponds along the Dan River.

What Put the Stuff on the Map

Despite being a political football [pdf] that had been tossed around Capitol Hill, the coal industry and EPA headquarters throughout the ‘90s and early aughts, coal ash was rarely a topic of dinner conversation around most American supper tables I suspect. But in December 2008 coal ash got America’s attention, and especially so for people like Tennessean Deanna Copeland. That was when the retaining wall of a coal ash pond gave way and sent more than a billion gallons of the toxic stuff into the surrounding area of the Kingston Fossil Plant in Harriman, Tennessee, toppling homes and fouling surface water. Copeland told the New York Times, “There are huge health concerns. It’s going to get in our house. We’re going to breathe it in. It would be like walking through a dust bowl, and we don’t know what’s in the dust.” (See related story: “Seeking a Safer Future for Electricity’s Coal Ash Waste.”)

Now, more than five years after the Kingston spill, and as the ranks of Americans affected by coal ash spills continue to grow, coal ash is still the stuff of legislative and regulatory wrangling [pdf]. (See also: “Largest U.S. Coal Ash Pond to Close, but Future Rules Still Undecided.”)

Coal Ash Refresher Course

Each year coal-fired power plants in the United States produce more than 120 million1 tons of coal ash, 40 percent of which gets placed in retention ponds and landfills. As outlined in Statistically Speaking: Coal Waste, this stuff is loaded with toxic material. There are lots of folks who believe it should be regulated as hazardous waste, and there are those, many aligned with the coal industry, who disagree, arguing it should instead be treated as non-hazardous waste and largely left to the states to regulate. (See previous post for details on hazardous vs. non-hazardous classification.) The net result, as with so many other critical issues facing the nation, has been a stalemate and default to the status quo, which in this case means no new regulations. More on this history here and here.

A Pledge to Break the Deadlock

On January 14, 2009, just weeks after the huge spill in Tennessee, EPA Administrator-designate Lisa Jackson thought the issue of coal ash important enough to explicitly address in her confirmation hearings. In her testimony Jackson made two notable pledges to reconsider the question of regulation and the methods used for storage of coal ash. And then on March 3, 2009 the agency announced a plan

“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.”

In the same news release (“EPA Announces New Action to Prevent Coal Ash Releases”) the agency “anticipate[d]” a proposed rule by year’s end and pledged “appropriate remedial action at any facility that is found to pose a risk for potential failure.

So, Four Years Later, How Well Did EPA Follow Through?

1. “Develop regulations for future safety”– I’d say Jackson’s pledge to move forward on regulation has received the most attention. And I think it’s fair to say the performance on this front has been lacking.

First EPA missed the December 2009 deadline. Finally, more than a year and a half later on May 4, 2010 EPA proposed a rulemaking procedure. The agency followed that with the June 2010 publication of proposed rules [pdf] with options to regulate coal ash as either a hazardous or a non-hazardous pollutant, and opened a public comment period for input on the proposals. That 90-day period came and went, but a final ruling was not forthcoming. Presently, despite a lawsuit [pdf] and a court order [pdf] (more here), a final rule has still not been issued.

A new deadline for the issuance of a final rule has been set for December 2014. I’m not holding my breath, but at least this one is different. Holding EPA’s feet to the fire is a consent decree [pdf] stemming from the lawsuit, which orders binding action.

“The EPA Administrator shall, by December 19, 2014, sign for publication in the Federal Register a notice taking final action regarding EPA’s proposed revision of RCRA subtitle D regulations pertaining to coal combustion residuals.”

We shall see.

2. “Conduct on-site assessments to determine structural integrity and vulnerabilities, order cleanup and repairs where needed” – While this aspect of EPA’s pledge seems to have received less attention than the one to promulgate regulations, it is arguably just as important if not more; especially so if you happen to live near one of the country’s approximately 676 impoundments for wet coal ash and 300 additional landfills for dry coal ash. (See map of coal ash waste sites.)

EPA initiated an assessment of existing impoundments in March 2009, requesting information from companies that dispose of coal ash (see this letter [pdf] for example), the results of which have since been released and published on EPA’s website. However, these assessments did not address structural integrity per se, as promised, but instead focused on rating “the potential hazard” for each storage unit should a failure occur, using criteria which assign dams “high,” “significant,” “low,” or “less-than-low” rating based on the risk that a dam failure would harm people, property and/or the environment. The report listed 45 storage units at 27 locations as “high hazard” coal ash ponds meaning a failure would threaten human life.

The agency then followed up with a safety/integrity study on the high and significant hazard units. The evaluations, carried out by contractors, rated the impoundments as “satisfactory,” “fair,” “poor,” or “unsatisfactory,” terms commonly used in the field of dam safety. The results of those assessments, released on EPA’s website, seemed, at least at first blush, to be most reassuring. According to EPA, based on the assessments it supervised,

“Expert experience has shown that only impoundments rated as ‘unsatisfactory’ pose immediate safety threats. None of the impoundments assessed so far have received an ‘unsatisfactory’ rating.”

Really? No “immediate safety threats”? Not quite.

And Then the Dan River Spill

On February 2, one of the two containment ponds at Duke Energy’s Dan River Steam Station, a retired coal-fired power plant in Eden, North Carolina, leaked, sending 50,000 to 82,000 tons of ash into the Dan River, putting the coal ash issue back on the front pages (see here, here and here) — and sending the political football back in play. (See here and here.)

The cause of the spill is pretty clear: a stormwater runoff pipe located beneath the main pond collapsed allowing coal ash sludge to leak into the pipe and flow into the river. While there’s lots of finger-pointing, with subpoenas flying and political maneuverings — and now concern that a second stormwater pipe may be leaking — the environmental impacts have yet to be fully understood.

Last week state officials issued two health advisories recommending people 1) avoid contact with the water or the river sediments and 2) avoid eating fish and shellfish from the river. On Tuesday the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service warned of a huge coal ash pile

“about 75 feet long and as much as 5 feet deep … on the bottom of the Dan River near the [spill] site…. Deposits varying from 5 inches deep to less than 1 inch coated the river bottom across the state line into Virginia and to Kerr Lake, a major reservoir.”

And there have been reports of dead turtles on the banks of the river, animals that normally hibernate in the river sediment this time of year. As for what impact the spill will have on drinking water, it’s too early to tell. At least one study suggests that the impact looks to be minimal, while others note that hazardous chemicals are still being leaked into the river. (See here, here and here.) Bottom line: we have a long way to go before the impoundment is fully secure and the coal ash is cleaned up. (See updates from the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources here.)

The Thing Is … The Dan River Was Part of the Assessment

While all that plays out, it behooves us to harken back to EPA’s assessments on the integrity of coal ash impoundments. You see, the funny thing about the Dan River facility — because its two two coal ash storage ponds were deemed to pose a “significant hazard potential” [pdf], they were included in EPA’s safety/integrity study [pdf].2 And how did the Dan River facility fare in that study? Despite the fact that one impoundment failed, they were not rated “unsatisfactory” or even “poor.” Dan River’s two ponds received a rating of “fair.” And in this context “fair” means: “Acceptable performance is expected under all required loading conditions… in accordance with the applicable safety regulatory criteria.” (See Duke Energy’s response to the study’s final report [pdf].) Hindsight, as they say is 20/20, but from this vantage point the “fair” rating has clearly proven to be far too forgiving of those stormwater pipes beneath the ponds.

In the EPA-commissioned report [pdf] (conducted by Paul C. Rizzo Associates), which gave the Dan River ponds a “fair” rating, the existence of the stormwater pipes beneath the ponds was noted. In retrospect, if the contractors had deemed the presence of stormwater pipes beneath the ponds a design flaw3 and given the ponds an unsatisfactory rating, this might have compelled Duke Energy to seal up those pipes and the Dan River spill could have been avoided. Instead, they just recommended that Duke Energy monitor the drainage from the pipes for turbidity — which Duke Energy says it did. Such monitoring can catch a slowly developing leak but not a catastrophic collapse like what apparently happened in this case.

Five-Year Grade

So here we are, more than five years since the Obama administration promised movement on coal ash. To date, regulations flounder and, given the Dan River spill from an impoundment whose integrity was rated “fair,” the work on the structural integrity side looks to have barely scratched the surface (pun intended).

With regard to the structural integrity assessments supervised by the EPA, a rating of “poor” pertains to cases when “remedial action is necessary … when further critical studies or investigations are needed to identify … deficiencies.” That sounds about right for this administration where coal ash is concerned. So let’s be charitable and give the administration a grade of poor instead of failing.

Coal-Fired Power Plants and Water Bodies

From the Google map of the Dan River steam plant you can clearly make out the two coal ash ponds right next to the river. Given their need for large quantities of water, most coal-fired power plants are located on rivers, lakes or other water bodies. Coal ash spills often mean the release of toxic sludge directly into surface waters that are often times also sources of drinking water for downstream communities.


End Notes

1 These numbers from 2012, the latest year available, are significantly lower than the recent average — on the order of 110 million tons [pdf], reflecting the drop in coal-fired electricity. (In 2008 for instance, approximately 136 million tons of coal combustion residue [pdf] was produced.)

2 Using different criteria, the state of North Carolina rated the Dan River impoundments as having “high hazard.”

3 The News and Observer reports that no other Duke Energy coal impoundments in North Carolina or South Carolina have stormwater pipes running underneath the impoundments.

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