OpEd

Story published: 04-16-2013 • Print ArticleE-mail Story to a Friend

Dealing with coal ash is a ‘must-do’

By Frances Lamberts

A week after the November elections, the dean of Duke University’s School of the Environment published an open letter to the EPA.

The letter dealt with “Top Three Must-Dos in Obama’s Second Term.”

First among the author’s listed items was a public-health regulatory issue that has been languishing in Washington for more than three decades.

Coal ash, the “toxic detritus from burning coal” is produced in staggering amounts, more than 125 million tons annually, in the U.S.

The second largest industrial waste stream after mining waste, most of the ash is dumped in unlined landfills and slurry ponds, from whence it can leak into groundwater and poison drinking water sources. In Duke’s home state (North Carolina) last year, toxic coal ash metals were found, at elevated levels, in the groundwater around all coal-fired power plants.

Nationwide, 137 sites are contaminated with coal-ash chemicals, according to an EPA study under the Bush Administration.

For residents living near these sites, the study raised the alarming prospect of cancer risk 2,000 times higher than the EPA’s regulatory goal for protecting Americans’ health.

There are more than 1,000 such waste impoundments, mostly unregulated in the states and completely unregulated at the federal level, nationwide.

Not that establishing a minimum of national safeguards for coal ash disposal hasn’t been tried.

In every administration over three decades, the EPA has considered regulation.

During the Clinton presidency, as Dean Chameides notes in his letter, the Agency almost succeeded. It proposed treatment of coal ash under the federal statute for hazardous waste.

Intense industry lobbying warded off this designation, however, and “self-regulation” by the producers of the waste, and lack of public information on its content and health risks have remained the norm.

In December 2008, rupture of a containment pond at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston power plant sent more than a billion gallons of toxic sludge into nearby lands and waterways.

The disaster gave renewed momentum to the public health and safety issues involved.

The Obama EPA responded with draft regulations in early 2009 which, again, proposed to monitor coal ash as hazardous waste subject to federal standards.

Again, this wasn’t to be.

A second draft proposal, in 2010, suggested either a hazardous waste treatment option under federal oversight or treatment like ordinary household waste, under regulation by the states.

Overwhelmingly in nearly half a million comments the Agency received in public hearings on that proposal, citizens sought assurance of uniform standards under federal authority.

Three years later, there the matter rests.

Regulation of this legacy of burning coal for electricity is in limbo still.

Meanwhile, as the dean’s letter notes, research continues to highlight the harmful effects that coal ash has on the environment and on people.

In Mark Twain’s “Silver City” story, “if a thing wanted regulating,” a community citizen could distinguish himself by not “browsing around after somebody to do it” but, instead, effecting to “regulate it himself” if need be.

The “must-do” suggestion on coal-ash regulation seems in order, indeed.