By Cindy Rank
Over the past several years WV Highlands Conservancy has joined with other local and national groups to weigh in on the question of how best to dispose of coal combustion waste (CCW).
The question has been simmering in the halls of Congress, the offices of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement
(OSMRE) since the Solid Waste Disposal Act Amendments (SWDA) were enacted in 1980.
The SWDA directed EPA to report back to Congress about whether or not CCW is Hazardous Waste and to determine how those wastes should be managed. In the ensuing years EPA has been straddling the fence shifting first to one side and then the other as political pressure demands.
But while EPA straddled, the combustion wastes from coal-fired power plants piled up in a variety of wet and dry lagoons, landfills and impoundments across the country and every state developed its own method of regulating the disposal.
Then FOOM ! ……The failure of the big ash containment facility at Tennessee Valley Authority power plant in Harriman, TN a couple days before Christmas 2008 awakened everyone from the 29-year stupor and all have focused on the potential problems at the thousands of sites across the country.
According to a report issued January 7, 2009, by the Environmental Integrity Project, “…dozens of contaminated sites have occurred all over the US and EPA has admitted that many
more probably exist but have not been discovered due to the lack of any monitoring at most sites. In all there are approximately 2,000 CCW dumps in America, 600 operating landfills and surface impoundments, 750 closed dump sites, 400-500 minefills, and hundreds of largely unknown structural fills. Most are ticking time bombs with citizens living around them unaware of any danger – like lab mice in some neverending experiment.”
While the TVA failure in Tennessee may have been a wake up call, the disposal of coal ash (and other combustion wastes from power plants – slag, bottom ash, flue gas desulfurization materials, etc. is a national problem that demands a national solution.
On January 14, 2009 Congressman Nick Rahall (D-WV) introduced “A Coal Ash Reclamation and Environmental Safety Act of 2009” and is planning a hearing in the U.S. House of Representatives in the near future.
Congressman Rahall’s proposed bill seeks to prevent any failure or breach of ash containment “impoundments” (i.e. “dams or embankments used to retain …coal ash, slag, and flue gas desulfurization materials stored or disposed of in liquid, semi-liquid or solid form.”) The bill gives the Secretary of the Interior the authority to promulgate regulations re: design, construction and maintenance “suitably similar” to the requirement for impoundments under the Surface Mine Act.
The regulation suggested in the Rahall bill may result in better engineering and design of new containment facilities and may provide for more thorough and frequent monitoring of the stability of the impoundments. However, it says nothing of liners to prevent the leaching of toxic contaminants into ground or nearby surface waters or monitoring for possible contamination.
As for existing impoundments, the bill requires an inventory of all impoundments within 12 months and a report to Congress no later than a year after the inventory is completed. The inventory is to include an assessment of design, stability and engineering of embankments, basin characterization, an assessment of risks to surface and groundwater and a determination on the degree of risk each impoundment poses to human and e n v i r o n m e n t a l health.
At first blush some environmental organizations that have been involved with CCW issues over the years see the Rahall bill as a possible good first step, but continue to see as essential more involvement and coordination with EPA.
For those of us who have encouraged EPA to manage this metal laden waste as hazardous, the Rahall bill falls short of dealing with the potential water contamination or requiring liners, leachate collection, groundwater monitoring and routine analysis of CCW’s. (the waste contains numerous hazardous materials including arsenic, selenium, lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium, boron, thallium and molybdenum. Water pollution has resulted in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Indiana, North Dakota and New Mexico.) Nor does the bill give any incentive to move away from wet dumps entirely and move toward properly managed dry storage.
…. As I’ve heard some say, even our household waste is regulated more carefully than these toxic ash dumps.
Whatever national regulation can be worked out, the time is now to take action before the fervor of the moment fades