Voice for the wildlife needs to be heard in regulating coal ash
By Frances LambertsThe title of Barbara Ward’s “Who speaks for earth?” comes to mind as one follows the wrangling over proposed regulation of “coal combustion residuals.”
Coal ash is produced in stupendous quantities, 140 million tons annually at our power plants, disposed of in some thousand, mostly unlined, surface impoundments.
Following the disaster at TVA’s Kingston plant, the Environmental Protection Agency initiated a new effort to establish national safety standards for coal ash.
As first proposed, it would be regulated as special (hazardous) waste, being laden with arsenic, cadmium, mercury and other heavy metal pollutants.
Under lobbying pressure from the utility, mining and other industries, a subsequent EPA proposal views two options: treatment like ordinary municipal waste (Subtitle D of the relevant statute) or treatment as special waste with high safety standards, federal inspection authority and prohibition of wet-ash slurry ponds in the future (Subtitle C).
Voices on one side of the debate — favoring Subtitle D or even absence of any new standard — regret the “stigmatizing” of coal ash and resulting, assumed job losses.They speak of the burdensomeness of regulation to industry, and of states’ rights regarding it.
Voices favoring stricter (Subtitle C) regulation, speak of the human health hazards from exposure, directly or through contaminated water: respiratory problems, organ disease, neurological damage, thyroid and various other cancers, developmental problems, even death.
In 2005, under President Bush, the EPA voiced concerns about the current disposal practices, which allow most ash and its pollutants, it stated, “to be disposed into groundwater tables” and create a 1:50 cancer risk for people living nearby.
In “Environmental Science and Technology” in July, two researchers from the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spoke up for another constituency: the wildlife victims.
For 45 years, they note, fish and other water-dependent species (amphibians, birds, reptiles) have suffered egregious poisoning effects from coal-ash disposal.
Whether through legally sanctioned or unpermitted discharge of slurry pond effluent to water bodies, through leaks into groundwater and subsequent emergence in surface waters, through “nuisance use” as birds, for example, may be drawn to such sites or through catastrophic impoundment ruptures such as in Harriman, the toxic elements from coal waste “have caused dramatic and costly impacts to aquatic life for decades.
“Subtle or even gross skeletal deformities and other abnormalities, (even double-headed fish) can result, and the poisons’ accumulation in food chains “can lead to massive reproductive failure and local extinction of species.”
From economic analysis of just 21 historic, confirmed ash-disposal damage sites, the authors show the combined direct and indirect cost of poisoned fish and wildlife to exceed $2.3 billion. They argue for adoption of the Subtitle C standard, the alternative with its enormous impacts on wildlife, being “a grave mistake.”
While the industry opposed to higher regulatory standards was given a voice at the negotiating table, the authors note, “our commentary is a voice for fish and wildlife in the debate.”
We should ask of the administration that this voice be heard.