Coal ash under fire 

Recent inspections by the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on coal ash ponds nationwide found ponds at four major Indiana power plants to be in "poor" condition. Many of these ponds were classified by the EPA as "high hazard," meaning that "failure or mis-operation will probably cause loss of human life."

"Regulations in Indiana are not protective," said Lisa Evans, senior administrative counsel at Earthjustice, a public interest law firm dedicated to environmental protection.

Coal ash is the toxic metal-laden byproduct of burning coal that has caused damage sites and water contamination around the country. Regulators and independent watchdogs have identified 137 damage sites in 34 states.

In total, 24 coal ash ponds in Indiana received a "poor" rating. The four plants housing these ponds are Indianapolis Power and Light's facilities in Martinsville, Indianapolis and Petersburg, and Northern Indiana Public Service Company's site in Wheatfield.

As Hoosier Environmental Council's Tim Maloney said in a recent joint release put out by HEC, Earthjustice and The Environmental Integrity Project, "Utilities have neglected to maintain the dams to protect public safety and health. It is clear that the state of Indiana has dropped the ball, and [the] EPA must step in with national standards to prevent a disaster." The three organizations have teamed up to keep the public informed on this pervasive pollution.

A history of harm

Coal ash first gained national notoriety with a spill of nearly one billion gallons that flooded the Emory and Clinch rivers in Kingston, Tenn., in late 2008. The disaster and subsequent 60 Minutes special highlighted the dangers of ash landfills and general hazards of coal ash.

The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), whose plant spilled the ash, has a website dedicated to the cleanup progress. And while the site displays a slideshow of bucolic images, the cleanup is still in progress, and some problems persist. Ash excavation will continue through 2012. At a public meeting in February, the TVA reported that most wildlife species evaluated showed an "elevated" level of Selenium in their tissues.

At that same meeting, the TVA admitted the "[h]ealth of fish immediately below the spill appears to be compromised to some degree."

(Editor's note: following the completion of this article, The New York Times reported on April 14 that TVA had been ordered to close 18 of its coal-fired power plants. Another 18 facility locations will be assessed. TVA reps have said they'll now work to diversify its energy portfolio. The Times quoted Mary Anne Hitte of the Sierra Club, who called the development "a game changer for how we power our homes and businesses in the Southeast.")

And as Charles Schmidt reported in the December 6, 2010 issue of Chemical and Engineering News, it all may be thanks to the EPA's flawed testing protocol that contamination numbers aren't coming back higher. "Even after remediation," he wrote, "buried ash in some locations still contaminates water among river sediments at arsenic levels beyond 2000 ppb. In comparison, the EPA's maximum contaminant level for arsenic in drinking water is 10 ppb (parts per billion)."

Indiana is third in the nation in amount of coal ash produced, and leads the country in number of coal ash ponds.

While 24 ponds around the state were given a "poor" rating, the EPA's classification on its website is vague at best: "A unit may be found to be structurally sound, while it may receive a 'fair' or 'poor' rating based on other factors such as lack of information."

Due to that lack of information, in some cases these ponds are considered structurally sound until proven otherwise. The 24 "poor" ponds are just above the only worse designation: "unsatisfactory." But with so few utilities receiving a "poor" classification, the rating, at first merely disappointing, is cause for greater concern.

Indiana's ratings don't appear to be an absolute declaration of imminent threat, but rather a wake-up call that the state and power producers are rolling the dice in terms of safety. Earthjustice attorney Lisa Evans: "Some 'poor' ratings are more concerning than others. A lack of information could indicate a serious problem not detected — a gross deficiency of the Indiana system."

After the EPA's nationwide impoundment testing to evaluate pond stability, the agency sent final assessment reports to each power company and utility provider.They were given a month to respond.

The EPA's final assessment reports to IPL vice president William Marsan regarding three of his sites were less than encouraging. "It does not appear that IPL has adequate inspection practices," the agency wrote. The report went on to point out that the Indianapolis plant did not have an emergency action plan in place for high-hazard ponds, and recommended they develop one.

According to Richard Yost, an EPA press officer, all companies have responded to the recommendations. The EPA will post the responses to their website once they've had a chance to review them.

Regulation snafus

Meanwhile, coal ash remains in a regulatory no man's land. The EPA has been waffling over a hazardous or non-hazardous distinction for decades, typically granting it a free pass from regulation. The agency recently posed two potential rulings on how to dispose of the problematic waste.

Regardless of which ruling is affirmed, increased regulation is on its way. The key is that the more stringent of the two proposals would give federal and state government the ability to enforce rules, which is not offered under the more lax ruling. In the latter, regulations could only be enforced through citizen lawsuits.

Personnel from both sides of the issue debated the relative merits and problems of federal oversight at seven public hearings across the nation this past fall.

On one side, representatives from the coal and power industries countered with claims that a hazardous designation would cost the nation jobs and significantly increase the price of power. They said it would also deter recycling of coal ash in products like cement and road base by scaring off consumers wary of a hazardous ingredient, even if the final product is safe.

John Ward, chairman of the advocate organization Citizens for Recycling First which promotes repurposing coal ash, testified to the EPA that a hazardous classification would cripple the recycling industry: "The hazardous waste stigma is real. Hazardous waste stigma presents significant barriers at every step of the chain, from the people who generate coal ash, to the people who specify its use, to the people who incorporate it in products, right down to the end-use consumers."

Speaking for the environmentalist camp, Lisa Evans dismissed the combined threat of job loss and a collapse of the coal ash recycling industry as "a red herring." She continued: "The industry is scaring the recyclers. When done safely, ash recycling is a good thing, but if ash is more expensive to dispose of, as under regulation, it will actually increase recycling and innovation of the ash. We've seen this in many other wastes."

According to Richard Yost, the EPA is now in the process of evaluating the 450,000 comments they've received from the public about coal ash regulation. Next, the agency will rule whether or not to impose federal standards: "The decision will be made after all the comments have been reviewed and analyzed," he said. A ruling should come sometime in 2012.

Until then, Earthjustice, the Environmental Integrity Project and the Hoosier Environmental Council will continue to struggle to keep coal ash at the forefront of the national consciousness. "It is hard," said Evans. "The issue with the pollution from coal ash is that it is often invisible."


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