published Thursday, January 8th, 2009

Tennessee: Groups urge more regulations on coal ash

Four environmental groups called Wednesday for new federal and state regulations on wet coal ash storage, calling the recent spill in Kingston, Tenn., the tip of an iceberg when it comes to risk.

For seven years ending in 2006, electric power utilities dumped more than 124 million pounds of toxic heavy metals into similar wet ash impoundments around the nation, according to the report by Environmental Integrity Project, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization established in March 2002 by former EPA enforcement attorneys advocating more effective enforcement of environmental laws.

In a telephone news conference Wednesday about the Environmental Integrity Project report, titled “Disaster in Waiting,” Executive Director Eric Schaeffer said 16 wet ash facilities around the country received more toxic metals in recent years than the Kingston facility.

“We don’t mean to diminish the Kingston spill in any way,” Mr. Schaeffer said. “The people down there need all the help they can get, and it really does point at the (national) problem.”

ON THE WEB

To view the entire report and hear the news conference, visit http://www.environmentalintegrity.org/pub577.cfm.

Lisa Evans, a project attorney with EarthJustice, a nonprofit environmental law firm based in Oakland, Calif., said the situation at facilities nationwide “all adds up to a gaping hole where the coal ash can roar through. As we’ve seen in Kingston, industry free from regulation has run amok.”

TVA spokesman Gil Francis has said plant workers at other TVA coal plants immediately conducted special inspections of the ash ponds after the Kingston spill. He said engineers are reviewing records for any signs of trouble at the other plants.

Ash ponds at all of TVA’s coal plants are inspected by both state and TVA environmental officials every year and by plant regulators every three months, Mr. Francis said. Also, plant workers look for any leaks or pond problems every day, he said.

“There are at least three levels of inspections at each plant, and that is ongoing,” he said. “These ponds are appropriately managed, and there are not any integrity problems.”

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The Environmental Integrity Project report shows TVA’s Widows Creek wet-ash landfill in Stevenson, Ala., may contain even more toxic compounds than the Kingston plant’s waste site, where 1.1 billion gallons of fly ash sludge spilled onto more than 300 acres on Dec. 22.

TVA officials reported the release at Kingston of 1.8 million pounds of arsenic, chromium, lead, nickel, selenium and thallium between 2000 and 2006, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency figures. But during those same years, TVA also told the EPA that it landfilled 2.5 million pounds of the metals to ponds at Widows Creek.

TVA’s toxic metal releases also included 2.7 million pounds at its Paradise Plant in Drakesboro, Ky., and 1.2 million pounds at the Johnsonville Plant in Middle Tennessee, the Environmental Integrity Project report states.

The report, released with a telephone news conference, blasts the Bush administration and state governments such as those in Alabama and Tennessee for not doing enough to monitor wet fly ash disposal.

The group said federal regulators leave oversight of coal-ash ponds and landfills to the states. Alabama has no regulation of such ponds, Ms. Evans said, and neither Tennessee nor North Carolina have required liners for the ash pond/landfills. Until the Kingston spill, Tennessee regulators left inspection of such facilities largely in TVA’s hands.

On New Year’s Eve, Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen ordered immediate state inspections of TVA ash ponds and landfills at all seven coal plants in the state. He said Volunteer State regulators now will be “looking over their (TVA inspector’s) shoulders.”

Chris Irwin, staff attorney for United Mountain Defense, a grassroots environmental group, said that letting TVA inspect and regulate itself “is like letting the burglar dust for fingerprints at the scene of the crime.”

The Associated Press reported Wednesday that the tab for Kingston’s toxin-laden ash flood could reach hundreds of millions of dollars. Costs of the cleanup, legal damages and changes in ash disposal methods are just beginning to be tallied, according to TVA officials.

TVA Chairman Bill Sansom said a much smaller spill in Pennsylvania in 2005 cost $37 million to clean up. He said TVA has no plans to seek a Washington bailout, and the costs eventually will be passed to TVA ratepayers, according to the AP.

During the news conference, Stephen Smith, executive director of Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, said he’ll be speaking today about wet-ash storage and Kingston at a hearing of the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. He said he will be asking them “to fully engage and look at this issue.”

“It’s a sad day when household garbage is more fully regulated than coal ash. This has got to stop,” Mr. Smith said. “Hopefully (the Kingston spill) will thrust this issue back into the spotlight.”

Mr. Kilgore and Roane County Director of Emergency Management Services William “Howie” Rose also are scheduled to speak to the committee.

about Pam Sohn...

Pam Sohn has been reporting or editing Chattanooga news for 25 years. A Walden’s Ridge native, she began her journalism career with a 10-year stint at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. She came to the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 1999 after working at the Chattanooga Times for 14 years. She has been a city editor, Sunday editor, wire editor, projects team leader and assistant lifestyle editor. As a reporter, she also has covered the police, ...

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