According to a former federal regulator, TVA utility ignored two small leaks that could have provided a warning years before the coal ash pond collapsed. Jack Spadaro, a retired mining engineer who investigated a 1972 coal waste dam break that killed 125 people in West Virginia, says that states have done a poor job monitoring huge ponds of coal ash. You may be surprised to learn that these ponds aren’t regulated by the federal government.
Tennessee uses solid waste landfill regulations for ash ponds, even though the substance in them — a mix of water and fly ash, a byproduct of coal-fired power plants — behaves more like a liquid when it spills. Spadaro, who contends the ponds should be regulated like dams, says: “State regulation has failed obviously. I think there needs to be federal regulation of the fly ash and the construction of these reservoirs.”
The federal Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t regulate the utility ponds because it doesn’t consider the coal ash hazardous material, although it can contain trace amounts of heavy metals. Two federal agencies that oversee mining keep an eye on similar waste at coal mines, but don’t regulate coal-burning power plants. At the Kingston plant, two small leaks in 2003 and 2006 caught the attention of Tennessee’s Department of Environment and Conservation, which asked TVA to provide additional details on the water going into the ponds. However, the state didn’t require a new storage system.
TVA said the piles of ash were as tall as 60 feet above the water and the ponds contained more than 145 million gallons of water and towered more than 700 feet high on the banks of the Emory River. TVA applied for a landfill permit in the late 1990s when it decided it needed a new system to handle the ash piling up at the Kingston plant. TVA had to repair the dike in 2003 after the ash started to leak out. The leak wasn’t big, but it was enough to lead TVA to consider disposing of the ash in a dry form, according to Tennessee officials. The utility eventually decided to continue using the pond and repairs were made apparently based on several recommendations from an independent engineering consultant.
According to a 2008 inspection report, TVA stopped dredging operations in a main pond after the 2003 leak, but continued using a smaller temporary pond while repairs were made. TVA resumed dredging in 2006, only to find ash seeping out of the dike just nine months later. TVA installed a system to relieve pressure on the walls, but according to reports, it was typical to see small areas of water seeping out of the ponds because of the drains TVA installed.
The state regulators in Tennessee were focused on the effect on the environment, and nothing in TVA’s latest inspection reports in May and October indicated that there was a structural problem with the retention ponds. But Spadaro, who spent nearly 30 years with the federal government as a mining regulator and instructor, says TVA’s last inspection report indicated the agency was “irresponsible” for failing to see these previous failures as an indication of a serious stability problem.
Spadaro, who also directed the National Mine Health and Safety Administration’s training academy, said that rather than continuing to operate the pond, TVA should have drained it and rebuilt the dam. According to news accounts, Tennessee is now planning stronger oversight of such ponds. Other states where TVA has ash ponds or landfills, including Kentucky and my State of Alabama, say they perform regular inspections at these sites. Knoxville-based TVA supplies electricity to Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Kentucky, Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia.
Source: Associated Press
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