|Three hundred acres were covered with toxic sludge in late December when a wall of a coal ash holding pond near Kingston in East Tennessee gave way. - Wayde Payne Associated Press|
The coal ash pond that ruptured and sent a billion gallons of toxic sludge across 300 acres of East Tennessee last month was only one of more than 1,300 similar dumps across the United States - most of them unregulated and unmonitored - that contain billions more gallons of fly ash and other byproducts of burning coal.
Like the one in Tennessee, most of these dumps, which reach up to 1,500 acres, contain heavy metals like arsenic, lead, mercury and selenium, which are considered by the Environmental Protection Agency to be a threat to water supplies and human health. Yet they are not subject to any federal regulation, which experts say could have prevented the spill, and there is little monitoring of their effects on the surrounding environment.
In fact, coal ash is used throughout the country for construction fill, mine reclamation and other "beneficial uses." In 2007, according to a coal industry estimate, 50 tons of fly ash even went to agricultural uses, like improving soil's ability to hold water, despite a 1999 E.P.A. warning about high levels of arsenic. The industry has promoted the reuse of coal combustion products because of the growing amount of them being produced each year - 131 million tons in 2007, up from less than 90 million tons in 1990.
The amount of coal ash has ballooned in part because of increased demand for electricity, but more because air pollution controls have improved. Contaminants and waste products that once spewed through the coal plants' smokestacks are increasingly captured in the form of solid waste, held in huge piles in 46 states, near cities like Pittsburgh, St. Louis and Tampa, Fla., and on the shores of Lake Erie, Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River.
Numerous studies have shown that the ash can leach toxic substances that can cause cancer, birth defects and other health problems in humans, and can decimate fish, bird and frog populations in and around ash dumps, causing developmental problems like tadpoles born without teeth, or fish with severe spinal deformities.
"Your household garbage is managed much more consistently" than coal combustion waste, said Dr. Thomas A. Burke, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, who testified on the health effects of coal ash before a Congressional subcommittee last year. "It's such a large volume of waste, and it's so essential to the country's energy supply; it's basically been a loophole in the country's waste management strategy."
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.
Just last week, a judge approved a $54 million class-action settlement against Constellation Power Generation after it had dumped coal ash for more than a decade in a sand and gravel pit near Gambrills, Md., about 20 miles south of Baltimore, contaminating wells. And Town of Pines, Ind., a hamlet about 40 miles east of Chicago, was declared a Superfund site after wells there were found to be contaminated by ash dumped in a landfill and used to make roads starting in 1983.
Contamination can be swift. In Chesapeake, Va., high levels of lead, arsenic and other contaminants were found last year in the groundwater beneath a golf course sculptured with 1.5 million tons of fly ash, the same type of coal ash involved in the Tennessee spill. The golf course opened in 2007.
State requirements for the handling of coal ash vary widely. Some states, like Alabama, do not regulate it at all, except by means of federally required water discharge permits. In Texas, the vast majority of coal ash is not considered a solid waste, according to a review of state regulations by environmental groups. There are no groundwater monitoring or engineering requirements for utilities that dump the ash on site, as most utilities do, the analysis says.
The lack of uniform regulation stems from the E.P.A.'s inaction on the issue, which it has been studying for 28 years. 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.) At the time, the E.P.A. said it would issue national regulations governing the disposal of coal ash as a nonhazardous waste, but it has not done so.
"We're still working on coming up with those standards," said Matthew Hale, director of the office of solid waste at the E.P.A. "We don't have a schedule at this point."
Last year, the agency invited public comment on new data on coal combustion wastes, including a finding that the concentrations of arsenic to which people might be exposed through drinking water contaminated by fly ash could increase cancer risks several hundredfold.
If such regulations were issued, the agency could require that utilities dispose of dry ash in lined landfills, considered the most environmentally sound method of disposal, but also the most expensive. A 2006 federal report found that at least 45 percent of relatively new disposal sites did not use composite liners, the only kind that the E.P.A. says diminishes the leaching of cancer-causing metals to acceptable risk levels. The vast majority of older disposal sites are unlined.
Most coal ash is stored wet in ponds, like the one in Tennessee, almost always located on waterways because they need to take in and release water. But scientists say that the key to the safe disposal of coal ash is to keep it away from water, by putting dry ash into landfills with caps, linings and collection systems for contaminated water.
Environmentalists, scientists and other experts say that regulations could have prevented the Tennessee spill. Andrew Wittner, an economist who was working in the E.P.A.'s office of solid waste in 2000 when the issue of whether to designate coal ash as hazardous was being debated, said the agency came close to prohibiting ash ponds like the one at Kingston. "We were going to suggest that these materials not be wet-handled, and that existing surface impoundments should be drained," Mr. Wittner said.
If storing coal ash were more expensive, environmental advocates say, utilities might be pushed to find more ways to recycle it safely. Experts say that some "beneficial uses" of coal ash can be just that, like substituting ash for cement in concrete, which binds the heavy metals and prevents them from leaching, or as a base for roads, where the ash is covered by an impermeable material. But using the ash as backfill or to level abandoned mines requires intensive study and monitoring, which environmentalists say is rarely done right.
The industry takes the position that states can regulate the disposal of coal ash on their own, and it has come up with a voluntary plan to close some gaps, like in the monitoring of older disposal sites.
"There probably isn't a need for a comprehensive regulatory approach to coal ash in light of what the states have and our action plan," said Jim Roewer, the executive director of the Utility Solid Wastes Activity Group.
Mr. Roewer said there was a trend toward dry ash disposal in lined landfills, though that trend was not identified in the 2006 federal report on disposal methods.
Environmentalists are skeptical of the industry's voluntary self-policing plan and the states' ability to tighten controls.
"The states have proven that they can't regulate this waste adequately, and that's seen in the damage that is occurring all over the United States," said Lisa Evans, a former E.P.A. lawyer who now works on hazardous-waste issues for the environmental advocacy group Earthjustice. "If the states could regulate the industry appropriately, they would have done so by now."
Utility companies are often aware of problems with their disposal system, Ms. Evans said, but they put off improvements because of the cost.
The Tennessee Valley Authority, which owns the Kingston Fossil Plant, where the Tennessee spill occurred, tried for decades to fix leaks at its ash pond. In 2003, it considered switching to dry disposal, but balked at the estimated cost of $25 million, according to a report in The Knoxville News Sentinel. That is less than the cost of cleaning up an ash spill in Pennsylvania in 2005 that was a 10th of the size of the one in Tennessee.