Toxic Coal Pollution May Trigger Regulation as Hazardous Waste

Date: January 9, 2009

Source: News Room

Much is being made of news about the Tennessee Valley Authority's coal ash pond rupture last month near Harriman, TN, especially after the New York Times made it a front page story on Jan. 6. That spill released an estimated one billion gallons of toxic sludge across 300 acres in east Tennessee. Now this week, the TVA says that a second site, the Widows Creek Fossil Plant in Stevenson, AL, sprung a 10,000 gallon leak of process water from a gypsum pond there.

Energy Department data reveals that 156 coal-fired power plants store ash in surface ponds similar to one that ruptured in Tennessee. The man-made lagoons hold a mixture of the noncombustible ingredients of coal and the ash trapped by pollution control equipment. This waste contains heavy metals like arsenic, lead, mercury and selenium considered by the US EPA to pose a threat to water supplies and human health, yet the disposal sites are largely unregulated and accordingly unmonitored.

According to an Associated Press analysis, in 2005, the most recent year data is available, 721 power plants generating at least 100 megawatts of electricity produced 95.8 million tons of coal ash, 20 million tons of which ended up in surface ponds. The remainder goes to regulated landfills, or is sold for use in concrete, road bed and other uses. In 2007, an EPA report identified 63 sites in 26 states where water was contaminated by heavy metals from such dumps, including three other TVA dumps. Environmental groups have submitted at least 17 more sites they say should be added to that list.

TVA President Tom Kilgore told a Senate hearing this week that "this event will trigger regulations," which he expects will likely result in designating coal ash as a hazardous waste. Sen. Barbara Boxer, chairwoman of the environment committee, said she plans to ask Lisa Jackson, Democratic President-elect Barack Obama's nominee to head the EPA, about providing regulation of the ash during her confirmation hearing next week.


EIP Report: Other Toxic Coal Pollution Dumps Around The U.S. Pose Greater Potential Danger Than Tennessee Coal Ash Spill Disaster Site

At Least 13 States Have 3 or More Under-Regulated "Wet Dumps" on Worst-Of Lists for Toxic Chemicals; One Coal Pollution Dump in Orlando, FL Holds 10 Times More Arsenic Than TN Disaster Site.

Nearly 100 largely unregulated "wet dumps" across the United States that are comparable to the Tennessee Valley Authority's breached site in Harriman, Tennessee for the storage of toxic pollution from coal-fired power plants have a place on one or more of the "worst site" lists for six toxic metals, including arsenic and lead, according to a new data analysis from the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project (EIP).

In fact, many of the toxic coal ash "wet dump" sites around the U.S. appear to pose a greater potential danger than the Tennessee site that is now in the headlines. In the case of deadly arsenic, which has been detected in water polluted by the TVA site disaster in Tennessee, the Stanton Energy Facility in Orlando, FL., has reported dumping roughly 10 times more of the carcinogen in its site between 2000-2006 than the TVA did over the same period in its now ruptured Harriman, TN storage pond site. According to the EIP analysis, at least 20 coal pollution dump sites reported more arsenic in coal ash impoundments than the Kingston site.

The TVA's now-notorious pollution storage site in Tennessee was found by EIP to be on five of the six toxic chemical lists for the 50 worst coal-fired power plant pollution "wet dumps." A total of five comparable disposal sites showed up on all six of the six worst-site lists for the toxic metals: TVA Widows Creek Fossil Plant, Jackson, AL; Duke Energy Gibson Generating Station, Gibson, IN; Georgia Power Scherer Steam Electric Generating Plant, Juliette, GA; Kentucky Utilities Co Ghent Station, Ghent, KY.; and Louisville Gas & Electric Co. - Mill Creek Station, Louisville, KY.

Using industry-reported data collected by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Toxic Reporting Inventory (TRI) data system for 2000-2006 (the latter being the most recent year for which complete data is available), EIP looked at the presence of arsenic, chromium, lead, nickel, selenium and thallium in the waste at Tennessee-style pollution dumping sites across the nation. The EPA has determined that these "surface impoundment" ponds (also known as "wet dumps") are the most likely storage sites to leak pollution into groundwater and surface water, even without a catastrophic failure such as the one before Christmas at the TVA's Kingston Steam Plant coal ash retention pond, which burst and covered the nearby area with more than a billion gallons of toxic-laden sludge.

The EIP analysis shows that a total of 13 states were found to have at least three coal-fired power plant "surface impoundment" dumping sites on the six 50-worst toxic chemical lists: Indiana, 11 dumps; Ohio, eight dumps; Kentucky, seven dumps; Alabama, seven dumps; Georgia, six dumps; North Carolina, six dumps; West Virginia, four dumps; Tennessee, four dumps; Illinois, three dumps; Michigan, three dumps; Pennsylvania, three dumps; Florida, three dumps; and Wyoming, three dumps.

Eric Schaeffer, director, Environmental Integrity Project, said: "The Tennessee eco-disaster has cast a spotlight on what is a very serious national problem - the existence of under-regulated toxic pollution coal dump sites near coal-fired power plants that pose a serious threat to drinking water supplies, rivers and streams. Our analysis confirms that this problem is truly national in scope and that Tennessee may end up only being a warning sign of much more trouble to come. In addition to so-called 'surface impoundments' in ponds, we need to be concerned about inadequate oversight and monitoring of land-based disposal and other 'storage' of these toxic wastes. We can no longer afford to ignore this problem and we certainly can't be content to just sit around and wait for the next Tennessee-style disaster to happen."

Lisa Evans, project attorney, EarthJustice, said: "By highlighting the enormous volume of toxic chemicals present in coal ash, which is concentrated at single dump sites throughout the U.S, the EIP report points to the solution- federal regulations that require containment of the toxic ash produced by every U.S. coal plant. Nothing less will solve this serious problem and stop the ongoing damage to our health and environment."

Christopher Irwin, staff attorney, United Mountain Defense, located in Knoxville, TN., said: "In Harriman Tennessee we were shocked when what is one of largest ecological disasters in American history destroyed an entire watershed and nearly a community. Now we are doubly shocked to find that this disaster may be set to repeat itself in communities all over. "These Ash piles maybe slowly poisoning America's greatest natural resource, our watersheds. The TVA disaster hopefully will be a wake-up call that protecting our precious water resources must be priority number 1. "Dead fish, sick residents, toxic sludge, dead rivers--the scene from the TVA disaster in Harriman Tennessee could repeat itself in unsuspecting communities throughout North America."


Other highlights of the new EIP report include the following:

  • Overall pollution. Between 2000 and 2006, the power industry reported depositing coal ash containing more than 124 million pounds of the following six toxic pollutants into surface impoundments: arsenic, chromium, lead, nickel, selenium, and thallium. These pollutants are present in coal ash, prone to leaching from ash into the environment and highly toxic at minute levels (parts per million or billion) to either humans or aquatic life, or both.

  • Arsenic. Alabama has the largest concentration of top 10 arsenic coal pollution dump sites, accounting for three of the heaviest concentration sites for 2000-2006: #2 Gaston Steam Plan, Wilsonville, Alabama; #3 Alabama Power Co. Gorgas Steam Plan, Parrish, AL; and #9 Alabama Power Co Greene County Steam Plant, Forkland, AL. By way of contrast, the TVA Kingston site was #20 on this list.

  • Lead. The Stanton Energy Center in Orlando, FL., has the dubious distinction of being the worst plant dumping site in terms of both arsenic (see above) and lead. Another TVA site - Paradise Fossil Plant, Drakesbore, KY. - is #3 on the list of worst plants for lead pollution storage. At least 19 plants reported releasing more lead to surface impoundments than Kingston.

  • Nickel. Once again, the Stanton Energy Center in Orlando, FL., tops the list with the highest level of reported nickel pollution. The #2 spot on the list goes to Duke Energy Corp Gibson Generating Station, Owensville, IN., which also ranks as #4 on arsenic and #2 on lead. At least 15 other plants disposed of nickel in amounts greater than Kingston between 2000 and 2006.

  • Chromium. The #1 spot on the list goes to the J.M. Stuart Station, Manchester, OH. The Stanton Energy Center in Orlando (#3) and the Duke Energy Corp Gibson Generating Station (#4) follow closely behind it. A total of 16 facilities reported disposing of more chromium in surface impoundments than Kingston.

  • Selenium. The top three spots on this list are as follows: First Energy Bruce Mansfield Power Plant, Shippingport, PA.; J.M. Stuart Station, Manchester, Ohio; and the Barry Steam Plant, Bucks, AL. A total of 15 facilities report releases of selenium between 2006 and 2006 that exceed the Kingston reports.

  • Thallium. The top three spots on this list are as follows: Georgia Power Scherer Steam Electric Generating Plant, Julliette, GA: Kentucky Utilities Co. Ghent Station, Ghent, KY; and Duke Energy Corp Gibson Generating Station, Owensville, IN.

The copy of the full EIP report is available online at


The EIP report outlines the following recommended remedial action steps:

1. Phase-out of all wet storage of toxic coal ash.

2. Immediate inspection and monitoring of all toxic coal ash storage and disposal units.

3. Federal regulation of all toxic coal ash storage and disposal by year's end.


The Environmental Integrity Project ( is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization established in March of 2002 by former EPA enforcement attorneys to advocate for effective enforcement of environmental laws. EIP has three goals: 1) to provide objective analyses of how the failure to enforce or implement environmental laws increases pollution and affects public health; 2) to hold federal and state agencies, as well as individual corporations, accountable for failing to enforce or comply with environmental laws; and 3) to help local communities obtain the protection of environmental laws.

Contact: Leslie Anderson, (703) 276-3256, or,

Toxic coal ash piling up in ponds in 32 states
By DINA CAPPIELLO, Associated Press Writer Dina Cappiello, Associated Press Writer
Fri Jan 9, 6:13 pm ET

WASHINGTON Millions of tons of toxic coal ash is piling up in power plant ponds in 32 states, a situation the government has long recognized as a risk to human health and the environment but has done nothing about.

An Associated Press analysis of the most recent Energy Department data found that 156 coal-fired power plants store ash in surface ponds similar to one that ruptured last month in Tennessee. On Friday, a pond at a northeastern Alabama power plant spilled a different material.

Records indicate that states storing the most coal ash in ponds are Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, Georgia and Alabama.

The man-made lagoons hold a mixture of the noncombustible ingredients of coal and the ash trapped by equipment designed to reduce air pollution from the power plants.

Over the years, the volume of waste has grown as demand for electricity increased and the federal government clamped down on emissions from power plants.

The AP's analysis found that in 2005, the most recent year data is available, 721 power plants generating at least 100 megawatts of electricity produced 95.8 million tons of coal ash. About 20 percent or nearly 20 million tons ended up in surface ponds. The remainder ends up in landfills, or is sold for use in concrete, among other uses.

The Environmental Protection Agency eight years ago said it wanted to set a national standard for ponds or landfills used to dispose of wastes produced from burning coal.

The agency has yet to act.

As a result, coal ash ponds are subject to less regulation than landfills accepting household trash, even though the industry's own estimates show that ash ponds contain tens of thousands of pounds of toxic heavy metals. The EPA estimates that about 300 ponds for coal ash exist nationwide.

Without federal guidelines, regulations of the ash ponds vary by state. Most lack liners and have no monitors to ensure that ash and its contents don't seep into underground aquifers.

"There has been zero done by the EPA," said Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W. Va., chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee. Rahall pushed through legislation in 1980 directing the EPA to study how wastes generated at the nation's coal-fired power plants should be treated under federal law.

In both 1988 and 1993, the EPA decided that coal ash should not be regulated as a hazardous waste. The agency has also failed to take other steps to control how the waste is stored.

"Coal ash impoundments like the one in Tennessee have to be subject to federal regulations to ensure a basic level of safety for communities," Rahall said.

The Tennessee spill was at a Tennessee Valley Authority plant covered 300 acres in a slurry of coal ash and water, destroying homes and tainting waterways and soil with high levels of arsenic.

The utility reported a second leak Friday at a pond at a northeast Alabama power plant that was storing gypsum, a material trapped in air pollution control devices that is different from the sludge that spilled in Tennessee. Some of the gypsum reached a nearby creek before the leak was stopped.

The spills have renewed a 20-year-old debate about whether stricter regulations are needed to govern them.

Rahall and Democrats in the Senate are also calling for tighter controls, including a requirement for ash ponds to be lined.

"The federal government has the power to regulate these wastes, and inaction has allowed this enormous volume of toxic material to go largely unregulated," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who chairs Senate committee that oversees the EPA.

In March 2000, the agency highlighted the risks posed by wastes in landfills and ponds. In an early draft of its proposal for a national standard, the EPA concluded that the wastes "have the potential to present danger to human health and the environment."

It also warned that the number of cases of contamination nationwide was likely to be underestimated because of poor state records and the lack of groundwater monitoring.

At the time, the agency said storage ponds posed an even greater risk than landfills when it came to leaks and spills.

"Surface impoundment controls occur at a significantly lower rate," the EPA concluded. And the pressure exerted by water "increases the likelihood of releases."

In 2006, the EPA once again found that disposal of coal waste in ponds elevates cancer risk when metals leach into drinking water sources.

The agency, which had set 2006 as a target for issuing a proposed regulation, says it is still working toward a national standard. A top EPA official also said there has been no "conscious or clear slowdown" by Bush administration officials who have run the agency since 2001 and often sided with the energy industry on environmental controls.

"It has been an issue of resources and a range of pressing things we are working on," said Matthew Hale, who heads the agency's Office of Solid Waste.

Over the years, the government has found increasing evidence that coal ash ponds and landfills taint the environment and pose risks to humans and wildlife. In 2000, when the EPA first floated the idea of a national standard, the agency knew of 11 cases of water pollution linked to ash ponds or landfills. In 2007, that list grew to 24 cases in 13 states with another 43 cases where coal ash was the likely cause of pollution.

The leaks and spills are blamed for abnormalities in tadpoles. The heads and fins of certain fish species were deformed after exposure to the chemicals.

Hale said the national standard would require monitoring for leaks at older, unlined sites and require the company to respond when they occur.

The industry already runs a voluntary program encouraging energy companies to install groundwater monitors. Industry officials argue that a federal regulation will do little to prevent pollution at older dump sites.

"Having federal regulations isn't going to solve those problems," said Jim Roewer, executive director of the Utility Solid Waste Activity Group, a consortium of electricity producers. "What you have to look at is what the current state regulatory programs are. The state programs continue to evolve."

Despite improvements in state programs, many states have little regulation other than requiring permits for discharging into waterways as required by the federal Clean Water Act.

In North Carolina, where 14 power plants disposed of 1.3 million tons in ponds in 2005, state officials do not require operators to line their ponds or monitor groundwater, safety measures that help protect water supplies from contamination.

Similar safety measures are not required in Kentucky, Alabama, and Indiana.

And while other states like Ohio have regulations to protect groundwater, those often don't apply to many of the older dumps built before the state rules were imposed.

"The solution is readily available to the EPA," said Lisa Evans, an attorney for Earthjustice, an environmental advocacy group. "We wouldn't like it, but they could say that municipal solid waste rules apply to coal ash. They could have done that, but instead they chose to do absolutely nothing."

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