EPA releases utilities' plans to make coal ash storage safer

Companies and Alabama officials, meanwhile, oppose tougher federal regulation

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 Updated:

An aerial view shows the aftermath of a coal ash spill after a retention pond wall collapsed at the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston Fossil Plant in Harriman, Tenn., in December 2008.

Wade Payne/Associated Press

The operators of at least 70 facilities that store coal ash, the waste byproduct of coal-burning power plants, have crafted safety plans to better prevent the sort of catastrophic accident that flooded Tennessee properties with toxic sludge three years ago.

The Environmental Protection Agency this week released the plans, saying they were an important step toward improving coal ash storage and avoiding a repeat of the 2008 Kingston, Tenn., disaster.

"EPA is committed to making communities across the country safer places to live," said Mathy Stanislaus, assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response. "The information we are releasing today shows that we continue to make progress in our efforts to prevent future coal ash spills."

The plans were crafted by 20 electric utility facilities that operate 70 coal ash impoundments, the agency said.

The new plans come as EPA weighs whether to treat coal ash as a hazardous product that would garner further regulation, a move opposed by some utilities and states. Alabama, for instance, is urging the agency to continue to treat coal ash as a non-hazardous waste product.

Environmentalists are concerned the agency is dragging its feet on a decision, and could even delay new rules until 2013.

The Obama administration initially supported the tougher approach but after meeting with 30 industry groups and 12 environmental or public health organizations proposed both the tougher approach and the less restrictive non-hazardous classification.

Utilities say stricter regulation will cost them more.

In comments to the EPA, Southern Co., whose Alabama Power Co. subsidiary operates 10 coal ash ponds in the state, said regulation as hazardous waste could cost up to $22 billion, compared with $15 billion. Rather than move the sludge to dry storage or add liners to the ponds, the company wants to monitor existing storage ponds for safety.

The EPA's efforts began after a catastrophic collapse of a storage pond at the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston, Tenn., plant on Dec. 22, 2008, sent 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash into the Emory River and adjoining lands and damaged properties.

But Alabama's public utilities commission argues that "a single failure" of a coal ash storage facility doesn't justify "the conclusion that coal combustion byproducts are hazardous and that all existing disposal facilities and practices should be eliminated in favor of new, extremely costly approaches," according to comments reviewed by The Birmingham News.

iWatch News has done series of investigative reports on the dangers of coal ash. You can read them here and here. An EPA database that compiles information received from utilities can be viewed here. More information on reports required by EPA is here.

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