Sludge spill Tennessee
Wade Payne/AP
This Dec. 22, 2008, aerial view shows homes that were destroyed when a retention pond wall
collapsed at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston Fossil Plant, in Harriman, Tenn.

Sludge Spill Fallout Spotlights Dearth of Coal Ash Regulation

January 08, 2009 12:57 PM
by Josh Katz
A few weeks after the massive sludge spill in Tennessee, many people are examining the lack of coal ash regulation in the United States.

Nationwide, Ash Ponds Lack Regulation

There are more than 1,300 coal ash ponds throughout the United States, and the majority of them lack regulation and monitoring, according to The New York Times. “Your household garbage is managed much more consistently” than coal ash, said Dr. Thomas A. Burke, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Jack Spadaro, a retired mining engineer who examined the 1972 coal waste dam break in West Virginia that resulted in 125 deaths, also claims that states have failed to properly regulate their coal ash. “State regulation has failed obviously,” said Spadaro, who argues that the ponds should be regulated like dams. “I think there needs to be federal regulation of the fly ash and the construction of these reservoirs,” the Associated Press reports quotes him as saying.

Tennessee regulates ash ponds the same way it monitors solid-waste landfills, despite the fact that ash ponds display liquid characteristics when spilled. Federally, the EPA doesn’t regulate utility ponds, as it does not classify coal ash as a hazardous material, “although it can contain trace amounts of heavy metals,” according to AP.

The use of coal ash in the country has skyrocketed recently because of the rising demand for electricity and especially because of the improved monitoring of air pollution. Contaminants and waste released from coal plants are now often caught as solid waste and stored in 46 states.

The EPA has avoided potential pricey federal regulations, which, the Department of Energy estimated in 2007, would run the government about $11 billion a year. The coal combustion industry has also argued that states should have the responsibility of regulating coal ash disposal, but states have also balked at reform in the face of cost, the Times reports.

Background: Sludge covers town, damages homes just before Christmas

The TVA originally estimated that 360 million gallons of coal ash sludge had escaped from behind a broken retention wall at its power plant in Kingston, Tenn., about 40 miles east of Knoxville. But then the TVA revised the estimate to more than 1 billion gallons of coal sludge, CNN reported.

A wall at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s power plant in Kingston that was holding back the sludge gave way on Dec. 22, spilling millions of gallons of waste—“a byproduct of ash from coal combustion”—on the surrounding area, CNN reported.

The avalanche of sludge damaged 15 homes and forced the evacuation of all residents.

A TVA spokesman told CNN that the power company has never had to deal with a spill so big before.

The sludge initially spread over an estimated 400 acres of land, exceeding the area covered from the Exxon Valdez oil tanker crash in 1989, according to TVA spokesman Gil Francis. He also indicated that it would take about four to six weeks to clean up the mess.

Preliminary water quality tests in the area indicated that drinking water was fine, and Francis said, “in terms of toxicity, until an analysis comes in, you can’t call [the water supply] toxic.”

But CNN noted that there were videos of dead fish in the tributary’s banks and Chandra Taylor, a staff attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, suggested that the sludge consists of concentrated substances like mercury, arsenic and benzine.

Furthermore, the recent spill is larger than a sludge spill that occurred eight years earlier in Kentucky, where “The water supply for more than 25,000 residents was contaminated, and aquatic life in the area perished,” according to CNN.

Francis said that freezing temperatures, a possible cause of the spill, could have contributed to the death of the fish, the Associated Press reported. Six inches of rain also fell in the course of 10 days, which also could have caused the wall to break.

“Kilgore said leaks were repaired in the retention pond walls in 2003 and 2006, and maintenance problems identified in the pond’s last annual review in January were fixed,” AP reported.

Related Topic: Group says metal levels worse than thought

Appalachian Voices, an environmental advocacy group headquartered in Boone, N.C., said on Jan. 1 that the levels of certain metals found in the sludge-tainted water in East Tennessee exceed drinking water standards by as much as 300 times—much more than the levels indicated by the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Environmental Protection Agency or the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.

The test results, which revealed high levels of arsenic, lead and chromium, came after early tests by the TVA said that the drinking water was safe. The TVA also downplayed the dead fish seen in the area, citing other possible causes.

“These are some of the most astonishing water-quality sampling results I’ve ever seen in my 10 years of working on rivers,” said Donna Lisenby, a spokeswoman for Appalachian Voices, according to The New York Times.

Residents of the area affected by the spill remain concerned about the future.

This could be something that shows up in five or 10 years,” says Jot Raymond, a 58 developer in the area. “It’s not what’s happening to people right now, it’s what could happen to our children and grandchildren years down the road,” USA Today reported.

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