From the New York Times
September 5, 2010 Editorial
Unsolved Coal Ash Problem
In December 2008, a gigantic storage pond belonging to the Tennessee Valley Authority near Kingston, Tenn., effectively burst at the seams, spilling a billion gallons of mainly toxic coal ash from a T.V.A. power plant into surrounding lands and rivers.
It was the perfect moment to right a long-festering environmental wrong. The Environmental Protection Agency promised tough new regulations governing the disposal of coal ash. Industry complained. The White House hesitated. Nothing happened.
The administration can redeem itself in the weeks ahead. Last Monday, the E.P.A. held the first in a series of regional hearings on two quite different proposals governing how coal-fired power plants dispose of waste.
One proposal, favored by public-interest groups and by agency scientists, would replace a patchwork of uneven — and in many cases weak — state regulations with new national standards. It would formally designate coal ash as a hazardous waste under federal law, require industry to phase out porous sludge ponds, replace them with sturdy, leak-proof facilities, and take other protective steps.
The competing proposal would establish federal guidelines for disposal but leave enforcement to the states. It would also preserve coal ash’s status as a nonhazardous substance. Though the proposal barely improves on the status quo, the Office of Management and Budget — after heavy lobbying by the coal industry — agreed to give it equal billing in the public hearings.
The tougher proposal is obviously better. Coal ash, the byproduct of coal combustion, is a huge problem. Its toxins — which can include arsenic, lead and other heavy metals — can poison local water supplies. America’s power plants produce 130 million tons of the stuff every year, enough to fill a train of boxcars stretching from the District of Columbia to Australia.
Some of this is usefully, safely and profitably recycled to make concrete and other construction materials. Designating coal ash as hazardous would not diminish these uses, despite industry claims. What new rules would do is greatly reduce the dangers from the 60 percent or so of the coal ash that now winds up in lightly regulated landfills.
Just in time for the start of the hearings, three public-interest groups — Earthjustice, the Sierra Club and the Environmental Integrity Project — identified 39 coal ash disposal sites in 21 states where leaking waste has raised water pollution levels beyond those permitted by federal laws. These sites can now be added to the E.P.A.’s own list of 67 dangerous sites.
By any measure, coal ash is a national problem demanding a national response.