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EPA Responds to TVA Fly Ash Catastrophe

Mar 25, 2009 | Parker Waichman LLP The devastating Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) fly ash spill that released 5.4 million cubic yards of coal sludge in Eastern Tennessee last December is a catastrophe that never should have happened, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

ReaditNews is now reporting that the EPA is working on plans to prevent future spills, including collecting coal ash impoundment information from electrical utilities, conducting on-site integrity and vulnerability assessments, issuing clean-up and repair orders, and enhancing safety regulations, said ReadItNews.  Critics say these steps should have been taken by the agency charged with environmental protection long ago, ReadItNews reported.

The 5.4 million cubic yards of coal sludge translates into a land flood of over 300 acres as well as water pollution destruction in large portions of the Emory and Clinch rivers.  Wildlife, water life, homes, and property were damaged, with some houses decimated irreparably.  According to ReadItNews, the clean-up costs have been recently estimated to run anywhere between $525 million and $825 million, which, it pointed out, does not include necessary long-term cleanup.

Earlier this month, we wrote about another accident that dumped 4,000 gallons of coal ash sludge into the Potomac River in Maryland after a pipeline ruptured at a coal-burning power plant.  The spill began on a Sunday evening and continued until that Monday morning, continuously spilling the slurry until a routine inspection by employees discovered the accident.  Now, ReadItNews reports that over 1,300 similar dumps exist nationwide, with most “unregulated and unmonitored” and containing an aggregate in excess of billions of gallons of fly ash and other “by-products of burning coal for energy.”

We have been reporting on the environmental dangers resulting from the TVA spill and how that accident is exposing area residents and the environment to some serious and dangerous health and environmental problems, such as radium and arsenic exposure, as well as the potential for dangerous amounts of selenium being released in the area waterways, according to an earlier report by the Tennessean.   ReadItNews noted that the known dumps—some of which can encompass 1,500 acres—also contain dangerous heavy metals such as arsenic, lead, mercury, and selenium.  Worse, none of the sites—including the now infamous TVA Kingston site—are subject to federal regulation, inspection, or environmental monitoring, said ReadItNews, adding that such oversight likely would have prevented the historic TVA fly ash spill.

And, even though the EPA issued a warning in the past decade about coal ash containing high arsenic levels, the residue is used for “construction fill, mine reclamation, and other ‘beneficial uses,’” such as in agriculture to “improve the ability of soils to hold water,” said ReadItNews.  Not surprising that the EPA has partnered with the American Coal Ash Association, the Utility Solid Waste Activities Group, the U.S. Department of Energy, U.S. Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service, U.S. Federal Highway Administration, and Electric Power Research Institute to promote Coal Combustion Products (CCPs).  Perhaps the need to promote its use might be linked to the 131 million tons of CCPs produced in 2007, alone, a significant increase from 90 million tons in 1990, said ReadItNews.

Numerous studies have concluded that coal dumps leach dangerous toxins into the environment that can cause cancer, birth defects, and other serious health outcomes in “humans, fish, bird, and frog populations,” but state regulations are uneven and there are no federal standards in place, said ReadItNews.  And, while the EPA has been looking at the issue for about three decades, it has never stated that the toxic residue is, in fact, a hazardous waste, which is contributing to the lack of regulation, ReadItNews added.

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