Tennessee: Early warnings on ash pond leaks

Tennessee: Early warnings on ash pond leaks

January 5th, 2009 by Pam Sohn in News

TVA FLY ASH REMOVAL

Six of TVA's 11 coal-fired power plants use a wet fly ash pond like the one that collapsed at the Kingston Fossil Plant

TVA coal plants

Wet fly ash ponds

* Allen, near Memphis

* Gallatin in Middle Tennessee

* Johnsonville near Waverly, Tenn.

* Kingston, near Kingston, Tenn.

* Paradise, in western Kentucky

* Widows Creek, near Stevenson, Ala.

Dry ash plants

* Bull Run

* Colbert

* Cumberland

* John Sevier

* Shawnee

Source: Tennessee Valley Authority

COAL ASH DISPOSAL

BY THE NUMBERS

* 70 million - Tons of fly ash produced each year nationwide

* 45 - Percent of coal power plants that use wet ash disposal process.

* 15 million - Tons of fly ash nationwide that go into concrete products each year

* 42 - Percent of fly ash and coal residue recycled for other uses each year.

* 390,000 - Number of dry tons of fly ash produced each year at the Kingston plant

* 95,000 - Tons of bottom ash produced each year at the Kingston plant.

Source: American Coal Ash Association, TVA

FAST FACT

Fly ash has been reused since the days of the Roman empire. About 2000 B.C., Romans discovered they could mix volcanic ash with limestone, water and sometimes even blood to make mortar to build such structures as the Pantheon and the Coliseum. About 45 percent of the fly ash from coal plants is used in roads or buildings in materials such as Portland cement.

HARRIMAN, Tenn. - The Tennessee Valley Authority knew for the past decade of leaks at the fly ash retention pond that ruptured in Roane County two weeks ago, TVA and state inspection reports show.

In both 2003 and 2006, leaks in the landfill where wet fly ash was dumped were so bad TVA repaired drainage and dikes around the retention ponds and, for nearly a year and half, TVA suspended any ash deposits in the landfill to allow the dredge cell to dry out and stabilize.

The head of TVA's coal ash disposal program said she was convinced the ash storage problems were fixed and the landfill for coal residue could pile up years more of wet ash. Missy Hedgecoth, a civil engineer who manages TVA's coal combustion byproducts, said when she got the call early Dec. 22 about a spill from a Kingsport dredge cell she was convinced it couldn't be that big.

"When I got the phone call in the middle of the night, I actually thought that worst case we might have had two or three dump truck loads that spilled out at the edge of the road, something we could have easily cleared up," Ms. Hedgecoth said. "What we saw when we got there is something that nobody could have imagined or predicted. This was truly a catastrophic event with no indicators that could have told us this was about to happen."

The failure to detect what turned into the worst spill ever at a U.S. coal plant is renewing calls for stricter regulation of ash ponds, which are used at nearly half of the 600 plus U.S. coal plants, including five other TVA fossil plants.

Environmental groups want the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to set national standards for ash removal and regulate coal residue as a hazardous material, rather that treating fly ash as an industrial waste with disposal regulated by state agencies.

Last week, Gov. Phil Bredesen promised to tighten state oversight of TVA's fly ash ponds and TVA President Tom Kilgore said the federal utility "is looking at all options" to dispose of fly ash burned at its Kingston plant.

"We're not likely to go back to the same kind of design," Mr. Kilgore said. "That would be, in my estimation, not the right thing to do."

But prior to the breach in the earthen dam around one of its elevated ash landfills, TVA officials thought they were doing the right thing by using a series of ash settling ponds and dredge cells to process and bury fly ash. Such an approach is common, although the Kingston ash-filled dredge cell was built up higher than at any other TVA plant.

Inspections by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation over the past couple of years showed satisfactory performance, although frequent leaks and minor problems were noted in the mounting landfill. TVA's last published inspection of the landfill reported no leaks or wet spots, and inspectors concluded previous problems had been corrected.

"The seeps along the toe of the dike (holding up the elevated landfill of fly ash) ... known since the early 1980s, were not visible during this inspection," states the February 2008 report, written from a December 2007 inspection.

Another inspection was made in October 2008, but the written report is not complete. TVA spokesman John Moulton said TVA does not release draft reports.

Two months after the last TVA inspection and three days before Christmas, the dike broke and 1.1 billion gallons of wet fly ash and coal residue spilled into the Emory and Clinch rivers, destroyed three houses and damaged at least three dozen others. The potentially toxic dry ash is spread over 302 acres - about a half mile square - north of the Kingston plant near Harriman.

Who should regulate?

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will conduct a congressional hearing in Washington, D.C., Thursday about the Kingston spill and will hear calls from at least one environmental leader who wants fly ash more strictly regulated by EPA.

Stephen Smith, executive director for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, calls the ash dumped here a witch's brew of fly ash, heavy metals and coal residue with potentially cancer-causing substances. Mr. Smith said TVA's initial error in estimating how much of the fly ash had spilled into the river and land around the plant highlights the lack of control of the material.

"Because this is an unregulated waste, TVA didn't even know at first how much had leaked out," Mr. Smith said.

TVA estimates more than 9 million cubic yards of fly ash and coal residue were dumped into the elevated landfill that rose 60 feet above the adjacent Emory River since 1958.

When the earthen dam around the landfill collapsed after heavy rains and freezing temperatures, TVA initially estimated about 1.7 million cubic yards of ash had leaked out. Subsequent studies raised that estimate to 5.4 million cubic yards of ash and muck, or enough to fill more than 1,300 Olympic-style swimming pools.

Currently, state regulatory agencies, including the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, control how utilities dispose of coal ash from power plants.

Gov. Bredesen, who toured the Kingston spill site last week, acknowledged that TDEC may have relied too much on TVA's own inspections and engineering studies about the ash ponds and dredge cells.

"Believe me, there will be a full-bore look at this to understand the causes of this thing and to try to make sure it never happens again," he said.

DEBATE OVER DANGER

TVA officials insist the fly ash comprises primarily inert material similar to foundry sand or most soils.

"Most metals in the deposited ash are not dramatically different from concentrations found in natural, nonagricultural soils in Tennessee, with the exception of arsenic," TVA said in a report issued over the weekend. "Total arsenic results were slightly above the average naturally occurring, but well below levels found in soils that are well fertilized and significantly below the limits to be classified as a hazardous waste."

But water samples around the spill by EPA and environmental groups show elevated levels of toxic heavy metals such as mercury, arsenic and lead up to 100 times above the drinking water standards for such substances.

Coal industry advocates called the Kingston accident an isolated event, although EPA has recorded smaller ash pond leaks previously at about two dozen sites. Like the Kingston spill, previous ash pond leaks have killed thousands of fish. But industry leaders said there are no proven instances of significant dangers to human health from any ash pond leaks.

"We agree with the Environmental Council of the States (which represents state environmental regulators) and the EPA that this doesn't need to be regulated as a hazardous waste," aid Jim Roewer, executive director of the Utility Solid Waste Activities Group of the industry trade group Edison Electric Institute. "We also believe that the states generally have in place programs to ensure the proper management of this material and are in the best position to take into consideration site specification applications and local conditions."

EPA looked at treating coal ash as a hazardous waste in 2000. But the Edison Electric Institute estimated such regulation would cost the owners of coal-fired power plants another $5 billion a year by forcing fly ash residue to be shipped off the plant site to a hazardous waste dump."

"There have been a few smaller spills, but nothing like this one in Kingston," said David Goss, director of the American Coal Ash Association, a trade group based in Aurora, Colo. "TVA and state regulators need to closely look at this incident, but we believe state regulators are best able to do that and there is no need for additional EPA regulation."

But critics of coal contend fossil fuels present health risks from mining, transportation, burning and disposal and too often utilities shift the environmental costs from coal on to the public.

"Coal is considered cheap because a lot of its costs are externalized to others who must deal with its effects," said Don Barger, senior representative for the Southeast region of the National Parks Conservation Association. "You can't say coal is cheap after an accident like this."

A 2004 investigation by TVA's Inspector General of hazardous leaks in the duct work at the Widows Creek Steam Plant found that management often was more interested in maintaining power production than immediately correcting the leaks.

"The emphasis was on efforts to contain the leaks while keeping the plant operating until the next major outage," the TVA IG concluded.

Mr. Smith said the problems at Widows Creek and now Kingston could indicate a culture of not paying enough attention to safety and environmental problems at TVA coal plants.

state tightens oversight

Ash ponds are regulated as Class II landfills in Tennessee by the state Department of Environment and Conservation's Division of Solid Waste Management. Agency reviews of the Kingston ash ponds reported satisfactory performance, although some leaks and minor problems were noted in some reports over the past decade.

Anda Ray, a senior vice president at TVA, said state regulators and TVA employees regularly inspect the ash ponds for potential problems.

"They all have visual inspections very frequently, and they all have routine, much more in-depth reviews at different times through the year," Ms. Ray said.

But TDEC has not required existing ash ponds to meet the standards it requires of new ponds. Gary Davis, an environmental lawyer who is working with the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy to sue TVA over the Kingston spill, questioned the state's regulatory approach.

"We're wondering why this cell (which ruptured and spilled its coal residue) was not regulated to the extent that a new cell would be regulated under TDEC's rules," Mr. Davis said.

Gov. Bredesen said last week TDEC policy will change in regard to ash oversight - and TVA's inspection of itself. He ordered immediate state inspections of all seven Tennessee coal plants and ash waste systems.

A growing number of utilities are using dry ash removal processes, including five of TVA's 11 coal plants. Most ash ponds were built at coal plants in the 1950s and 1960s when there was little demand for dry ash and the ponds could be used to help hold down airborne fly ash and dispose of the coal residue in onsite landfills.

But as more plants shift to dry fly ash recovery and processing, nearly half of the fly ash today is recycled into Portland cement, road materials or other uses.

In the United States, fly ash has been used in concrete and roads since the 1930s, Mr. Goss said.

Today, about 15 million tons go into concrete to make it less permeable and substitute for Portland cement. Other fly ash is used for agricultural purposes, fill dirt or road bases.

But fly ash is a potential toxic material for aquatic life when it gets in the river and can be a cause of cancer if too much becomes airborne or gets in the drinking water.

Gov. Bredesen hopes the disaster has a silver lining.

"Burning fossil fuel for electricity - it's a dirty business," he said. "Everywhere this happens, there are huge ash piles and environmental issues. My dream out of all this is that maybe this is an epiphany for TVA and for the country that some things have got to change."