published Thursday, December 30th, 2010

Groups fear EPA's data could sway ash decision

  • photo
    Staff File Photo by Patrick Smith Remains of a coal ash spill that blanketed more than 300 acres in Harriman, Tenn., surround the TVA Kingston Fossil Plant.

Two years after the coal ash spill in Kingston, Tenn., federal action to regulate coal ash dumps is being held up by concerns that stricter standards would depress markets for coal-ash recycling, two environment watchdog groups claim.

The delay is the result of the federal regulators' use of faulty data, according to Environmental Integrity Project Director Eric Schaeffer.

"Unfortunately, EPA and [Office of Management and Budget] just got this wrong," he said, noting that the regulatory impact analysis prepared by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency "exaggerates" the economic life-cycle value of coal ash recycling.

The EPA's cost-benefit analysis estimates that coal ash recycling is worth more than $23 billion a year, based on the annual life-cycle benefits of avoiding pollution and reducing energy costs. But that estimate is more than 20 times higher than the $1.15 billion that the U.S. government's own data shows is the correct number, according to a review released Wednesday by the Environmental Integrity Project and co-authored by Earthjustice and the Stockholm Environment Institute's U.S. Center, based at Tufts University.

EPA spokeswoman Betsaida Alcantara, in a prepared statement, said the groups' review would be considered in the coal ash rule-making process, "along with the more than 400,000 thousand public comments we've received to ensure our decision is based on the best science."

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PDF: Richard Moore testimony

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Article: Tennessee Valley Authority may end ash ponds in Kingston

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PDF: Kingston Senate Hearing Testmony

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Alcantara, through EPA spokesman Richard Yost, said EPA has proposed a rule that will for the first time regulate coal ash. The agency is working to finalize a decision, they said.

Schaeffer, an advocate of regulating the disposal of coal ash as a hazardous waste, said the calculation could "end up stacking the deck" in favor of a weaker regulatory option backed by industry. The weaker option would allow states to decide how to regulate coal ash disposal.

"Somehow, (EPA) has let itself be distracted by bogus economic arguments, instead of determining how best to protect the public from leaking ash dumps," Schaeffer said.

In Tennessee, the 5.4 million-cubic-yard spill at Kingston occurred when the landfill wall of an unlined, 50-year-old ash pond ruptured and collapsed. The pond/landfill was regulated as nonhazardous.

TVA spokesman Scott Brooks said the contents of Wednesday's review are "matters for the EPA and the Environmental Integrity Group." He said TVA supports EPA's initiative to develop national standards and a uniform set of rules across the industry. The utility also supports and seeks recycling uses for the ash.

TVA officials have said about $400 million has been spent so far to clean up the Kingston spill, with about half of the spilled ash removed from the site. TVA has estimated the final cost could reach more than $1 billion.

DOCUMENT DOWNLOADS

PDF: EIP coal ash rule analysis

The Environmental Integrity Group's report also states:

• At least 50 unregulated high-hazard dams similar to the Kingston dam and located around the country "continue to pose a similar risk of catastrophic failure, and many more ash dumps are currently contaminating groundwater."

• EPA and environmental groups have documented more than 100 dump sites where coal ash has poisoned water supplies.

• EPA's own risk assessments reveal that arsenic levels in drinking water around unlined ash ponds can be high enough to cause cancer in one of 50 people -- 2,000 times higher than EPA's acceptable risk level.

• A review of state regulations shows the majority of states fail to require essential safeguards for coal ash landfills and ponds, including liners, groundwater monitoring, dust controls and financial assurance. Only four states in the U.S. require all landfills to be monitored, and only six states require all ponds to be monitored for leaks.

Contact Pam Sohn at psohn@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6346.

about Pam Sohn...

Pam Sohn has been reporting or editing Chattanooga news for 25 years. A Walden’s Ridge native, she began her journalism career with a 10-year stint at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. She came to the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 1999 after working at the Chattanooga Times for 14 years. She has been a city editor, Sunday editor, wire editor, projects team leader and assistant lifestyle editor. As a reporter, she also has covered the police, ...

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jpo3136 said...

We have got to get away from practices which directly create large garbage heaps.

What's the "recycling" component in these processes? Moving the garbage dump to Alabama?

Anytime we condone a process that is going to result in one large garbage dump that won't degrade on its own, with common exposure to wind, weather and terrain, we're asking for trouble like this disastrous spill.

The standard for biodegradability basically is, Ashes to ashes; dust to dust. There are no exceptions.

We can't have contaminants in greater concentration, durability or volume than they would occur in that place in nature without them being regarded as contaminants. Until agents, like coal ash, are degraded to not only natural harmlessness, but also natural occurrence and location, they're not recycled.

We need to pay attention to the latter half of the manufacturing process: the disposal half.

Until those materials are disposed of, back into nature, we're not done. A hard look at the requirements for the logistics of reasonable and strong trash disposal will show that we have been getting over by ignoring over half of this required process for decades, probably centuries.

If you thought curbside recycling was something the city's Republicans would whine about, wait until they realize just how much their profit margins have been getting over on trash disposal.

If we do not start disposing of the trash properly, we're going to lose our own life-sustaining natural resources solely because we acted like stupid people when we knew better.

We need to dispose of contaminants properly, and one more trash dump is not the right way.

December 30, 2010 at 9:47 p.m.
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