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Three years after Kingston spill: Toxic coal ash dumping continues to rise in U.S.

News | January 6, 2012 | By:

10 states account for three-quarters of disposal in ash ponds: Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, North Dakota, Ohio

Most U.S. surface impoundments are not lined

A Jan. 5 press release from the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) noted that three years after the coal ash reservoir rupture and spill in Kingston, Tenn., the United States has not yet established standards to curb the threat to public health and waterways posed by unstable or leaking ash ponds at coal-fired power plants.

Meanwhile, volume of toxic metals in the ash that power plants dumped in ponds rose 9% in 2010, the most recent year for which information is available, the release stated.

According to an EIP analysis: “… the most recent data from the U.S. Toxics Release Inventory show that disposal in these big ponds was higher in 2010 than it has been since 2007, the year before the TVA spill. Yet EPA’s proposal to set standards for safe disposal—which included a plan to close down ash ponds within five years—has gone nowhere.”

The press release said that in 2010, power plants reported using coal ash pond dump sites to dispose of wastes containing 113.6 million pounds of toxic metals or metal compounds, a category that includes arsenic, chromium, lead, and other pollutants that are hazardous in small concentrations and difficult to remove from the environment once released. That [amount] reflects a 9% increase in pond disposal since 2009 and is higher than the total reported in 2008, according to the release.

The press release said that an indication of how power plants vary when it comes to coal ash dump sites, the EIP found that 20 facilities account for more than half (57 million pounds) of the toxic metals contained in power plant waste and disposed of in surface impoundments in 2010. Four of these are in Alabama, three are in Georgia, and two are in Missouri. Just 10 states accounted for three-quarters of total pond disposal in 2010, including (from lowest to highest): Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, Ohio, Indiana, North Dakota, Minnesota, and Michigan.

EIP director Eric Schaeffer said: “Not only are coal ash impoundment levels rising, rather than dropping, but we are seeing efforts by some in Congress to thwart EPA efforts to protect the health of Americans from toxic coal ash dump sites. EPA proposed in June of 2010 to require the closure of surface impoundments within five years. If the [EPA] manages to issue a final rule before the end of 2012, that ban would take effect at the end of 2017, a full nine years after the TVA spill. In view of the hazards these ash ponds present, that seems long enough.”

The concentration of arsenic or other metals in ash or scrubber sludge can vary, based on the source of the coal and the effectiveness of air pollution control devices in removing these contaminants from stack gasses. The press release said that an increase in reported disposal volumes for these metals can mean either a rise in concentration of toxic metals in coal combustion waste, or an increase in the volume of waste containing these metals, or both.

Most surface impoundments are not lined, which means that the toxins in the ash are more likely to seep through the bottom of these ponds and into groundwater or nearby rivers and creeks. The limited amount of monitoring data shows that this is already happening at many sites that have used surface impoundments for ash disposal for decades, according to the release.

On Dec. 13, 2011, EIP released monitoring data from state files showing that a total of 20 additional coal ash dump sites causing groundwater and soil contamination in 10 states—Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Nevada, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas—have been uncovered around the U.S. Previous EIP reports identified similar contamination at 70 other sites across the country, according to the Jan. 5 press release.

The full text of the new EIP analysis is available here.

About EIP

The Environmental Integrity Project is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization established in March 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.

Source: Environmental Integrity Project

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