04/11/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Finally Standards for Coal Ash... Just in Time?

Dr. Bill Chameides is the dean of Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and a member of the National Academy of Sciences. He blogs regularly at

On Monday, while the Environmental Protection Agency sought information from electric companies about their coal waste disposal practices, a new crisis was bubbling up. A pipe from a paper mill in Maryland broke open, leaking potentially toxic fly ash sludge into the Potomac River. After decades of dithering on just how to classify the stuff, it's about time EPA acts on coal waste. But is it enough?

If it's true all politics are local, it's also true that environmental issues often start local and only get wide attention when something huge - and usually pretty bad - happens.

Take coal ash. If you're like me, you probably hadn't thought too much about the stuff until December 2008 when a retaining wall at the Kingston coal-fired power plant burst, spilling toxins over 300 acres and chasing people from their homes just before Christmas. But then, if you lived near one of the many sites that have experienced contamination and other problems over the years, you might have known that a kind of "time bomb" was ticking away.

According to Congressional testimony from June 2008 (and other sources), there is documented damage from the storage of coal waste in pockets across the country spanning decades:

  • In Anne Arundel County, Maryland, coal ash stored in unlined gravel pits contaminated drinking water wells with toxic metals as high as four times the drinking water standard.
  • In Gibson County, Indiana, enormous ash ponds have been exposing threatened species to dangerous selenium levels, and residents are being supplied with bottled water courtesy of a power company because of contaminated wells.
  • In Colstrip, Montana, contaminated residential wells (with high levels of metals, boron and sulfate)  prompted five companies early last year to agree to dole out $25 million to settle a groundwater contamination lawsuit brought by residents. (More info here [pdf].)

The list goes on.

Lots of Waste, Lots of (Potential) Problems

Every year the coal industry dumps some 70 million short tons of waste [pdf] into an estimated 194 landfills and 161 impoundment ponds around the country - waste that is radioactive and contains a host of toxic metals. (And that's not even counting coal waste units that are no longer in use but also pose big problems.) In many cases, these have been found to leak or leach into the surrounding groundwater. And while coal ash spills are now on Americans' radar, thanks to the Kingston plant event, remember that spill is just another in a series. The most recent is the paper mill spill that crews were still working on yesterday to clean up.

The history of regulation of coal ash is not pretty. After looking into the problem for two decades, EPA was finally set to designate coal ash as a hazardous pollutant in March 2000 [pdf], until the Clinton administration reversed course and decided not to - ostensibly because of cost concerns (see here and here). The Center for Public Integrity suggests that industry pressure played a role as well. (Shoring up storage methods costs money.)

Instead of a hazardous pollutant designation under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, which would have kicked in strict pollution control measures, the Clinton administration proposed that EPA would develop standards for coal ash under the non-hazardous designation. Before the Clintonites could get to it, their time in the White House expired, and, surprise, surprise, the Bush administration never got to it.

Now it looks like the Obama administration is going to strike out in a different direction. On March 9, 2009, EPA issued "Information Request Letters" to about 60 power plants that store coal waste. It's the opening salvo to assess their safety.

Following this assessment, EPA plans to require immediate remedial action wherever necessary and to develop rules for future safety. All this for electric power plants, but what about other facilities that store coal ash? Like the paper mill in Luke, Maryland, whose pipe burst open just days ago? Hopefully, that will soon be in the works too.

The Long and Winding Road to Environmental Regulation

EPA expects to complete the long awaited draft rules for managing coal ash waste by the end of the year - one of the many environmental rulings that did not materialize during the Bush years. At the same time the agency has hinted it might revisit the earlier non-hazardous classification of coal waste.

Sounds good to me, especially since a draft EPA report from 2007 found that coal wastes in unlined and clay-lined storage sites pose a significant risk to people and the environment.

The famed Juliet said, "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet." Some blogging scientist, taking a cue from the bard of Avon, might say, "Stinky coal waste by any other classification would be as hazardous."