Just days before the three-year anniversary of the devastating dike failure at the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston Fossil Plant, the Environmental Protection Agency still has little authority to regulate the storage of toxic coal ash produced as a byproduct of coal power. A new report released Tuesday shows coal ash's harmful environmental effects are more widespread than previously understood.
Meanwhile, a bill proposed by a bipartisan coalition of coal-state senators would strip away the federal government's power to do anything about it.
The new report from the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project identified 19 coal ash dump sites in nine states where heavy concentrations of arsenic, boron, manganese and other pollutants contaminate the groundwater nearby.
At some of those sites, the EPA had noted only "potential" contamination, but when the EIP did its own tests, it found chemicals had leached into the ground.
Some coal ash is stored as a solid. But a "hell of a lot" of the coal ash produced in the United States is stored in containment ponds like the one that failed so horribly in Tennessee, according to Jeff Stant, director of the EIP's coal combustion waste initiative.
At the Kingston Fossil Plant, some 1.1 billion gallons of coal fly ash slurry spread across 300 acres of land when a dike broke in December 2008. Nobody was hurt, but the total cleanup cost could run to $1.2 billion.
Stant estimated that somewhere between 60 and 70 million tons of coal ash a year winds up as slurry in containment ponds.
"There are many high-hazard dams, the ones that pose the greatest hazard to human life ... worse than the Kingston dam in terms of the danger it imposes," said Stant. "And there are a whole bunch of dams where the maintenance is rated poor by the EPA," he added.
When power plants burn coal, they generate enormous quantities of ash, which must then be stored or recycled. Electric utilities often choose the cheapest course of action, turning the ash into a slurry and storing it in vast ponds.
The ponds must be contained by dams, levees or dikes. But no single agency oversees dam safety in the United States. Instead, that authority is left up to a hodgepodge of state and federal regulators. Some states do no regular dam safety inspections, and one state (Alabama) has no dam safety program at all.
"Most states do not require that dams be inspected or even be built and certified by engineers," Stant said.
And that's a big problem, said Lisa Evans, a lawyer for Earthjustice. "These ponds hold millions of gallons of toxic sludge, and that material can escape, should a wall collapse," she said.
Even without a collapse, the EIP found, coal ash contaminants leak into the ground through dam walls that lack proper seals.
"You don't have to have a disaster like you had in Tennessee in order to have a really dangerous situation," Stant said.
To ward off another dam collapse, the EPA would like to classify coal ash as hazardous waste, which would give it oversight for dam safety. Although the Obama administration has seemed wary of the proposed move, fearing congressional Republicans' rhetoric about "job-killing" regulations, the option remains on the table -- for now.
Some in Congress would like to remove the option and prohibit the EPA from imposing its draft hazardous waste regulations. In October, the House passed the Coal Residuals Reuse and Management Act, which would leave coal ash regulation up to the states and prevent the EPA from implementing the new rules. The Senate is looking at a similar measure backed by Sens. John Boozman (R-Ark.), Kent Conrad (D-S.D.), Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio).
"In the current economic environment, the continued threat of excessive regulations coming from this Administration creates uncertainty and hinders job growth," House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said in a statement when his chamber's version of the bill passed.
Coal slurry dams are federally regulated at one end of the process -- when used in the mining of coal -- by the Mine Safety and Health Administration. Stacy Kika, an EPA spokeswoman, said that in developing its proposed regulations, the "EPA looked particularly to the Mine Safety and Health Administration, who has nearly 40 years experience writing regulations and inspecting dams associated with coal mining."
If some in Congress get their wish, however, there will be no federal regulation at the other end of the process, when the coal turns into ash.
"It's sad that the third anniversary of the TVA accident is coming up next week, and there's very little to show for it in terms of movement to prepare for another catastrophe," said Evans. "Instead, we seem to be going backwards."