Coal Ash Dump in Tennessee Should be a Warning

Last month’s coal ash dump in Tennessee was one of the worst environmental disasters of that kind in US history. Yet, according to a report today in the NY Times, the Tennessee coal ash incident is not isolated. There are more than 1,300 similar coal ash dumps around the country and they contain hazardous chemicals such as arsenic, lead, mercury, and selenium. These toxins are a serious threat to human health and local drinking water supplies.
More importantly, none of these dumps are monitored or regulated. Without such regulation, the probability of another toxic spill like the one in Tennessee is fairly high.
The environmental problem has been growing with the increasing demand of electricity coupled with efforts in the last few decades to curb air pollutants. What once spewed through the air near coal plants has now been transformed into solid waste stored at these coal ash dumps. The dumps are not just the problem of the coal mining regions either. Coal ash dumps can be found near such unlikely cities as Tampa, St. Louis and even the Mississippi River.
According to the NY Times article, “as the E.P.A. has studied whether to regulate coal ash waste, the cases of drinking wells and surface water contaminated by leaching from the dumps or the use of the ash has swelled. In 2007, an E.P.A. report identified 63 sites in 26 states where the water was contaminated by heavy metals from such dumps, including three other Tennessee Valley Authority dumps. Environmental advocacy groups have submitted at least 17 additional cases that they say should be added to that list.”
This past week a judge approved a class-action lawsuit settlement concerning such toxic coal ash dumping against Constellation Power Generation in Maryland.
In spite of the fact that the EPA has been studying the issue for 28 years, nothing has been done to address the problem. The EPA’s inertia has led to chaos and a growing problem that threatens to seriously impact our groundwater supply and public health. States are not much better at tackling the issue in their own backyards. Alabama doesn’t regulate or monitor the situation at all. Texas deals with the problem by denying it. They don’t view coal ash as solid waste and don’t have any type of monitoring or engineering requirements for utilities that dump the ash in their state.
As with most large federal agencies, part of the problem is political. The Times article notes, “In 2000, the agency came close to designating coal ash a hazardous waste, but backpedaled in the face of an industry campaign that argued that tighter controls would cost it $5 billion a year. (In 2007, the Department of Energy estimated that it would cost $11 billion a year.)” Once again, lobbying and influence peddling in Washington puts our public health in jeopardy.
In spite of the growing public health concern and 28 years of inactivity, the director of the office of solid waste at the EPA had this to say to the NY Times, “We’re still working on coming up with those standards. We don’t have a schedule at this point.” Perhaps his firing should be scheduled.