Saturday, January 03, 2009

Tennessee Coal Ash Spill Followup

The after-effects of an environmental catastrophe two days before Christmas continue to unfold. The mainstream media has carried a few stories but at this writing the event is still not on the radar for most people.

An eight-minute YouTube documentary gives rich meaning to the word "muckraking."

Sandra Diaz, National Field Coordinator for Appalachian Voices, Hurricane Creekeeper John Wathen and Watauga Riverkeeper Donna Lisenby paddle up the Clinch and Emory Rivers to record the conditions after a 5.4 million cubic yard spill of coal waste from the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston Coal Plant.

The Charleston Gazette has a followup today.

Three days before Christmas, an earthen dam in Tennessee collapsed, spilling coal ash sludge down a riverway 40 miles west of Knoxville, Tenn. The torrent of ashy goo from the Tennesee Valley Authority's Kingston power plant destroyed three houses and damaged 42 parcels of land. Luckily, no one was seriously injured. Monitoring for lead, arsenic and other toxic sustances continues.

Understandably, this spill makes anyone living near a coal-fired power plant nervous. As the Gazette's Ken Ward Jr. explained Tuesday, there are no federal regulations governing dumps of coal ash on power plant property, despite plenty of evidence of problems.

In contrast, active mine sites are governed by strict rules for impoundments used to hold the slurry remaining after coal is washed and prepared for burning. Those requirements are spelled out in the 1977 Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act.

After coal is burned, it leaves behind one-fifth to one-third of its volume in ash laced with arsenic, selenium, mercury and other contaminants. Yet, regulation of coal ash dams is left to state agencies. Naturally, standards, staff and expertise vary widely.

The latest estimate from the TVA is that 5.4 million cubic yards of ash sludge burst from the impoundment, covering 300 acres of nearby farms, fields and rivers. And there was plenty of warning that something was wrong. There were at least two leaks in 2003 and 2006.

In 2006, internal erosion weakened the impoundment. That's the same problem underlying the 1972 Buffalo Creek disaster that killed 125 Logan countians and injured 1,100. It's the same problem involved in the October 2000 Martin County impoundment breakthrough, when 300 million gallons of slurry gushed into an underground mine and then into the Tug Fork of the Big Sandy River.

There is definitely room for improvement in rules and enforcement of coal slurry impoundments on mine sites. But whatever their problems, those standards are vastly better than the non-existent rules for ash impoundments at power plants.

There has been plenty of study, plenty of warning and plenty of notice.

In 1980, Congress required the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to decide if a power plant site held "hazardous waste" and should be subject to stricter regulation. That ruling didn't come until May 2000. Two years later, the Bush administration simply said it would not write hazardous waste rules for plant ash. In March 2006, the National Academy of Sciences recommended the federal Office of Surface Mining and EPA develop nationwide standards for power plant ash in surface impoundments, landfills and mining sites.

While people have dithered and ignored warnings, the amount of ash has increased because pollution control equipment gleans more particulates from smokestack fumes.

On Tuesday, Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., said dams like the one in eastern Tennessee should be required to follow design and safety standards set by existing federal strip mine laws. That's a good place to start. Perhaps Rahall could write that into law, or attach it to an appropriations bill.

How many more toxic spills and polluted streams will it take for America to take coal ash seriously? Let's hope it doesn't take another disaster, perhaps causing deaths of coalfield residents.

Barack Obama calls for infrastructure projects. This project looks like a no-brainer to me.

A few days ago the Christian Science Monitor said this:

The sludge was a mixture of water and fly ash, a residue that is captured in the chimneys of coal-fired power plants. Fly ash is distinguished from bottom ash, which is removed from the bottom of the furnace.

Fly ash is mostly made of fine, hollow, glassy particles of silica, the most abundant mineral in the earth’s crust, as well as aluminum oxide, iron oxide, and lime, a white crystalline solid that humans have used for thousands of years. When airborne, some of types of silica particles have been found to be potentially harmful to people’s lungs.

But more worrisome are the trace concentrations of toxic metals – including arsenic, lead, barium, and chromium – that scientists think may damage the liver and nervous system and cause cancer. The ash also contains uranium and thorium, both radioactive elements. Ounce for ounce, fly ash delivers more radiation into the environment than shielded nuclear waste.

In the past, fly ash was simply belched out of smokestacks and into the air, but this practice halted with increased clean-air regulations and the discovery in the 1930s that the ash was useful in making cement. Since then, the ash has been deposited in surface impoundments, where it is stored in dry form or, as with the Kingston Fossil Plant, combined with water to form a gray gooey sludge.

In 2000, following an accidental release of 306 million gallons of fly ash sludge that befouled rivers and soil in Eastern Kentucky, the Environmental Protection Agency recommended that the material be regulated as a hazardous substance. The agency backed down in the face of industry opposition, agreeing instead to issue federal guidelines for disposal. These guidelines were never issued.

The much-larger TVA spill, which is estimated to be 40 times bigger in volume than the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, has flowed into the Emory and Clinch Rivers, tributaries of the Tennessee River. Local news media report that dead fish now line the banks of the Clinch near the site of the spill. Authorities say that they have found elevated arsenic levels in water near the spill, but they maintain that the local tap water is safe because arsenic and other potentially toxic elements are removed during water treatment. They have, however, cautioned against drinking well water in the area.

The New York Times, which has been covering this story extensively, found that in a single year, the Kingston plant’s byproducts include “45,000 pounds of arsenic, 49,000 pounds of lead, 1.4 million pounds of barium, 91,000 pounds of chromium and 140,000 pounds of manganese.”

According to the Times, local residents have faulted authorities for failing to release more results of water and soil samples. So far, officials have released results for only two samples, both taken from drinking water upstream of the spill, which was deemed safe.

According to The Tennessean, officials said that the magnitude of the spill could qualify it to become a federally declared Superfund site. These statements suggest that the cleanup process, which has already begun, could take years to complete.

The paper notes that the Kingston plant continues to operate, with the fly ash being sent to one of the two remaining containment ponds.

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