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 26 percent 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 2007 EPA study both found high cancer risks from groundwater near unlined and clay-lined impoundments — 1-in-50 in some areas — but the dangers weren't publicized 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 TVA announced 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.
Storing coal ash dry may be more expensive upfront for power producers than using wet slurry ponds, but look at the cost of those slurry ponds failing: Cleaning up the TVA Kingston plant spill and paying for the damage could run as high as $3 billion. Meanwhile, the TVA estimates that to shift all six of its wet fly ash handling systems to dry, plus eliminate the web bottom-ash systems at all 11 plant, would cost half that over 10 years.
In 2000, the EPA looked at the possibility of regulating the 100 million tons of toxic coal ash disposed of ponds and landfills each year. It pointed to several problems to consider, including that "coal combustion wastes could pose risks to human health and the environment if not properly managed," but it declined to regulate.
Now, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson has said her agency plans to propose new rules for the disposal of coal ash this year. Earthjustice would like to see wet ash storage eliminated.
"We're telling EPA, look at the science now and how the states have continued to keep these broad gaps open and have not be regulating coal ash effectively. Look at the fact that EPA lowered the arsenic standard in drinking water," Evans said.
"This is doable this year. It was doable 15 years ago. We can protect people from coal ash."
The EPA's survey found wet storage used in 35 states, primarily across the Midwest, Appalachia, the Southeast and Intermountain West, but the public information about coal ash disposal isn't complete. Duke Energy, Alabama Power, Georgia Power and Progress Energy declined to release information about 74 impoundments claiming "confidential business information."
(Photos: December 2008 Kingston coal ash spill/TVA)