EPA nears decision on coal ash regulation

EPA nears decision on coal ash regulation

April 24th, 2014 by Dave Flessner in Business Around the Region

Southern environmental leaders who want stricter controls over the disposal of coal ash are challenging utility complaints that such regulations will push up the price of electricity.

The president of Duke Energy told North Carolina legislators this week that removing coal ash from all of the 33 unlined dumps at Duke's 14 coal-fired power plants could cost up to $10 billion, with its electricity customers likely footing most of the bill.

But Frank Holleman, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said Duke's cost claims "are nothing but a public relations ploy to make it seem as expensive as possible to discourage any effective remedy."

After meeting with top EPA officials from the agency's Atlanta office on Wednesday, Holleman said Duke Energy has been wrong about previous cost estimates and claims about coal ash.

"Other utilities in the Carolinas are doing exactly what we've asked Duke Energy to do and it is not affecting their electric rates," Holleman said.

Cleaning up ruptured coal ash ponds is expensive, as the Tennessee Valley Authority found out in 2008 when nearly 1 billion gallons of coal sludge spilled into the Emory River from the nearby Kingston Fossil Plant. TVA has spent nearly $1 billion so far to clean up and compensate property owners for the damage.

The federal utility also expects to spend another $1.5 billion to convert its remaining coal ash ponds into dry ash storage facilities at most of its other 10 coal plants, TVA spokesman Scott Brooks said.

But TVA would have to spend far more if regulators classified coal ash as hazardous as many environmental groups are urging that the Environmental Protection Agency do in its final rules due by December.

Sara McClain, a resident of Swan Pond who lives on a portion of the family's original 1,000-acre farm near the Kingston coal plant, said the destruction she witnessed from the Kingston ash spill in 2008 shows the potential damage from wet coal storage.

"We're still in situation more than five years later that coal ash spills arehappening and there is still a lack of adequate controls from EPA," she said. "Yes, TVA did clean up, continues to clean up and will probably be cleaning up for many years to come. TVA likely won't make the same mistake again, but it's been proven that others will."

On Feb. 2, a collapsed pipe at a Duke Energy coal plant in North Carolina coated 70 miles of the Dan River in gray sludge.

In a presentation to a state legislative committee on Tuesday, Duke's North Carolina president Paul Newton said the utility wants to remove the coal ash from unlined dumps at four of its power plants, but then leave much of what is stored at 10 other sites in place after covering it with plastic and soil.

Duke has more than 100 million tons of the ash, which contains potentially harmful chemicals including arsenic, lead, mercury and chromium.

"Coal ash is chock full of hazardous heavy metals and these materials need to be regulated as hazardous because they are seeping into our water supplies," said Ulla Reeves, the high risk energy program director with the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

McClain said the train cars that carried away the spilled coal ash from the Emory River in Kingston to a landfill in Perry County, Ala., were marked as hazardous waste cars.

"The Department of Transportation recognizes these wastes as hazardous and we think EPA should as well," she said.

But industry groups who recycle coal combustion materials for cement, wallboard and aggregate materials insist that coal ash is not a hazardous material.

Tom Adams, executive director of the American Coal Ash Association, said the heavy metals in most coal ash is comparable that of other soils and EPA tests have not demonstrated that coal ash meets the criteria to be classified as hazardous. Such a standard would require that all coal wastes be deposited in hazardous waste landfills and would limit useful recycling opportunities for such materials.

Currently, about 45 percent of coal combustion products are recycled.

"That would be far higher if there was more regulatory certainty about these materials," Adams said. "We could use these materials in many beneficial ways and reduce the waste stream and limit what goes into our landfills if we did more to promote recycling of these materials."

Adams said groups that are advocating hazardous waste designation for coal ash materials "are fundamentally opposed to coal generated electricity and want to do anything they can to shut down coal plants."

EPA has twice previously ruled that coal ash is not a hazardous material and has hinted in its preliminary findings that it will not classify coal ash as hazardous when it issues its final regulations by December.

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 757-6340.