Coal Ash Containment and the EPA

Going green, Renewable energy — By Roberta on February 7, 2010 at 12:08 am
kingston tn coal ash pond failure  Coal Ash Containment and the EPA

Kingston TN coal ash containment disaster

Ever since a coal ash containment pond  broke in December of 2008, spewing coal ash into a nearby river and over 300 acres of farm and woodland,the Environmental Protection Agency ( EPA) has been rethinking its coal ash policy.

The event, which took place in one of the facilities run by the TVA was possibly the worst environmental disaster ever seen in the United States.

Coal ash, for those who do not know, comes from burning coal to make electricity and it is pretty lethal stuff.  It  contains arsenic, lead, mercury and a number of other toxic substances  which can create environmental havoc if the ash is not properly contained. Disposing of it is not an easy task.  50 to 60 percent of the coal ash produced in the United States is put into landfills or containment ponds like the one that burst in Tennessee.

Since more than half the residential electricity produced in the United States, is produced by burning coal, it is clear that the problem of what to do with coal ash is going to be ongoing and become ever larger  until we switch to renewable energy for the production of electricity.  That time is coming, but it is still a long way off.

Message to the EPA

Throughout 2009, after the  Tennessee coal ash debacle,  the EPA conducted tests  of  containment facilities nation-wide to determine their structural integrity. The aim was to create some federal guidelines for the safe storage and disposal of coal ash, something that, at the moment, is regulated completely at the state level. There are 584 coal ash dump sites across the United States. Forty-three  of them, owned by 22 different utilities were  found by the EPA  to be dangerously substandard, and were required to make major adjustments to insure that a repeat of the Tennessee incident does not occur.

They agreed and just this past Friday, the agency released action plans developed by these 22 privately owned utilities  describing the measures each facility is taking voluntarily to insure safe storage of coal ash. All very nice, but it doesn’t exactly solve the problem.  Clearly, this is only a stopgap.   If we are going to continue to use coal to produce residential electricity, then we need federal guidelines and strict federally enforced regulation of the toxic biproducts of production. The EPA and the Obama White House are trying, but so far no dice.   The coal industry lobby is also hard at work  greasing palms and buying influence.  The result is political gridlock.

So here is my message to the EPA and to the Obama Administration.  Stop the foot dragging.  Let’s get coal ash classified as toxic waste and find some better ways to deal with it.  More importantly,  the Tennessee incident shows just how important it is for us to move  to producing  more and more of our residential electricity with solar, wind, and geothermal– all clean, renewable sources of power. Until we do, the toxic land fills and containment ponds will simply grow along with pollution and the chance of another environmental disaster. Instead of spending all that money to contain, let’s spend money to move beyond coal technology and into the future. Let’s take action and leave politics behind.

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  1. Thar she blows… High Yar!!!

  2. To characterize coal ash as “pretty lethal stuff” is a misrepresentation. First of all coal ash is not a single entity. Coal ash includes both fly ash and bottom ash, which are “coal combustion byproducts.” The chances of a person being exposed to the TRACE toxic substances in coal combustion byproducts in an amount considered toxic is incredibly remote. This issue is complex. Please encourage your readers to please consider the impact a “hazardous” label would have on recycling these materials. Today about 45 percent of coal combustion byproducts are recycled. If not, they are disposed of, which means MORE material in landfills. Labeling and fear tactics take logic and sound science out of this important discussion. Please visit for more information.

  3. Roberta says:

    Thanks for your comment, Melissa. Absolutely this is a complex issue, however there is no question that both fly ash and bottom ash contain a broad range of toxic substances. I am aware that 40% or so of coal combustion byproducts are recycled– mostly in cement products. I believe there is some question as to whether or not this is safe given the chemical composition of those byproducts. I aagree MORE material in landfills is not a good idea, but neither is unsafe recycling. In the long run we need to bite the bullet and stop using coal to make our electricity and start using renewables.

    Thanks for the comment and for the link. I will definitely visit.

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