THE BLOG
11/25/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Coal's Ash Is on the Line

This post was co-written by Lyndsay Moseley, Washington Representative for the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign.

For those who remember the tragic TVA coal ash spill of December 2008 and wonder if such a disaster could happen in your town, there have been lots of important recent developments. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has started inspecting hazardous coal ash impoundments around the U.S., rating them based on how likely are they to fail and cause massive disasters like the spill at TVA's Kingston, TN, plant last December.

In keeping with President Obama's goal of promoting transparency, the EPA has also begun posting their findings online  -- more than 43 inspections at 22 facilities have already been posted.  And how many of those 43 impoundments ranked "satisfactory"?  Just over half of them -- the rest were rated "fair" or "poor," which means they have some work to do. This is scary news, considering that these dams are holding back billions of gallons of toxic waste left over from burning coal to generate electricity.

As the EPA continues to inspect more coal ash impoundments, we are anxiously awaiting the EPA's draft rules, which have been in the works for over a decade and -- amazingly enough -- would be the first federal regulations ever put in place to ensure utilities are disposing of this hazardous waste safely. We expect that EPA will not only address the safety of the dams, but also how to treat the highly toxic waste material that is held back behind the dams. Coal ash contains arsenic, selenium, lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium, boron, thallium, and aluminum -- toxic heavy metals that have been linked to cancer, birth defects, and neurological disorders, and which clearly threaten nearby communities and ecosystems. 

There are some who would have the EPA classify coal ash within the same category as household garbage. Call us crazy, but a substance that threatens to increase risks of cancer and other diseases doesn't really sound like regular household trash.

And what's more, when coal ash comes into contact with water, these hazardous materials leach out of the waste and contaminate groundwater and surface water. Coal ash is exactly as we described it, a hazardous material. And nearly a hundred million tons of toxic coal ash and related coal combustion wastes pile up in unlined ponds and pits across the United States every year -- the second largest solid waste stream in the nation, after municipal garbage.

Of course, we are pleased to learn from recent news reports that EPA's lawyers agree that coal ash must be regulated under the hazardous waste classification, because it's the only classification that establishes one consistent federal standard, prevents states from adopting weaker standards, and allows EPA to inspect sites and enforce these safeguards.

In order to meet Administrator Lisa Jackson's stated goal of proposing regulations for coal ash by the end of 2009, EPA Office of Resource Conservation and Recovery will likely send draft rules to the White House Office of Management and Budget in the next few weeks. OMB has up to 90 days to complete their review before the draft rule is published in the federal register and the public comment begins. 

We must remain vigilant, but we are pleased to see EPA finally taking the critical steps needed to protect communities and watersheds across the nation from the hazards posed by coal ash.