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Utilities Plans for Coal Ash Ponds May Not Be Enough

Utilities Plans for Coal Ash Ponds May Not Be Enough

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Are utilities' plans for shoring up hazardous coal ash dams good enough?

Excerpt from Online Magazine of the Institute for Southern Studies

kingston_spill_aerial_vert_front.jpgThe U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has released action plans submitted by 22 coal-fired power plants to improve the safety of the massive dammed surface impoundments where they store toxic coal ash, but environmental advocates question whether the plans do enough to protect the public from disaster.

That's because in the absence of federal regulations treating coal ash as hazardous waste, the EPA lacks authority to strictly enforce the plans.

The utilities submitted the plans to EPA in response to the agency's on-site assessments of the impoundments, ordered after the catastrophic December 2008 collapse of a coal ash impoundment at the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston power plant in eastern Tennessee. The agency made the plans available to the public last week.

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Attorney Lisa Evans, a coal ash specialist with the environmental law firm Earthjustice, praised EPA for sharing the companies' plans with the public. But she questioned whether these voluntary plans for shoring up the structures are adequate given the potential threat to communities.

"Where are the administrative orders to the facilities with enforceable time lines?" asked Evans. "Unless these things are formalized, enforceable and tracked by the agency, I don't think there's much use to them."

EPA stated that if facilities "fail to take sufficient measures, EPA will take additional action, if the circumstances warrant" -- but it does not specify what that action might be. Evans pointed out that unless coal ash is declared hazardous, there cannot be strict federal enforcement. And to date, the EPA has declined to designate coal ash as hazardous waste.

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Evans also questioned the adequacy of the inspections, which were based on visual assessments of the sites, interviews with on-site personnel and reviews of technical reports and other documents where available. "No new core samples or really invasive and diagnostic testing was conducted," she said.

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* The final inspection report [pdf] for Duke Energy's Allen plant in Gaston County, N.C. documented the presence of scarps -- large cracks cause by erosion -- near the crest of a dam as well as seepage, and recommended maintenance work to detect stability issues. In its action plan [pdf], the company said that the "scarps and seepage noted in this inspection report have been identified in previous inspections performed by independent engineering consultants" and that it "will continue to monitor these areas." The Allen plant sits on Lake Wylie, a man-made reservoir on the Catawba River, which was named the most endangered U.S. river in 2008 by American Rivers.

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To see the action plans submitted by the utilities, click here and scroll down to the documents marked "New."

(Photo shows the aftermath of the December 2008 coal ash impoundment failure at the TVA's Kingston power plant in eastern Tennessee.)
To read the rest of the article at the Online Magazine of the Institute for Southern Studies, go to
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