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EPA should regulate coal combustion waste

The Environmental Protection Agency knew for a long time the public health threats from current coal-ash disposal methods.
In 2002, it finalized a risk report on the ash impoundments used by coal power plants. Nearby residents, it deduced from the screening, have a 1 in 50 chance of developing cancer through arsenic, a common pollutant in fly-ash sludge, if wells were their source of household water.
They are at increased risk as well for non-cancer diseases affecting the liver, kidney, lungs and other organs through unsafe levels of toxic metals in their water.
Many substances in the ash, seeping into groundwater and thence into streams, also endanger aquatic creatures since being found at tens, or even hundreds or thousands of times the threshold safe for them.
The agency acknowledged these risks but did not publish the report. Following Freedom of Information Act requests for it, EPA released censured documents, the key sections on cancer and ecological risks blacked out, in March 2007. Making public the 2002 assessment later that year, it omitted discussion of the high cancer and other health risks to people living near coal-ash impoundments.
Three months after TVA’s containment pond disaster at the Kingston power plant, in which a “sludge tsunami” of ash slurry covered a 300-plus acre area, EPA finally published the full text of the 2002 screening report and announced its intent to issue national regulatory standards for safe coal-waste disposal, by the end of 2009.
This deadline has come and gone. But now, a group of scientists, in a letter to the Office of Management and Budget which oversees regulatory policies from the White House has urged issuance of federal standards for coal-ash disposal, too long delayed.
Citing a “combined 100-plus years of research experience on the environmental fate and toxic impacts of coal combustion wastes,” they state that this waste is “a deadly poison to fish and wildlife and a threat to human health when improperly managed.”
The majority of ash-slurry lagoons, many hundreds of them across the country, lack liners, leachate collection systems and even systematic monitoring.
For only 89 ash disposal sites, the EPA in 2007 found sufficient technical information available to judge containment effectiveness.
Eighty percent of these had either proven damage, meaning off-site ground- and surface water contamination or potential damage, with groundwater polluted on-site but off-site movement unexamined.
Coal industry officials are lobbying against regulation of coal ash as the hazardous waste it is, arguing this to be “too expensive.”
Surely the billions in clean-up cost which TVA ratepayers will be burdened with, for damages from one disposal pond, the treatment costs for cancer and other diseases which thousands of citizens have to bear, and the damage to waters and wildlife are much greater expenses, offloaded as of now on the public.
The White House, remembering the President’s promise to let science inform policy should issue — and let the public know and have input to — protective federal standards for coal-waste disposal, forthwith.