The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has enacted the first-ever national rules to ensure the safe disposal and management of coal ash from coal-fired power plants. Coal combustion residuals, commonly known as coal ash, are byproducts of the combustion of coal at power plants and are disposed of in liquid form at large surface impoundments and in solid form at landfills. The residuals contain contaminants like mercury, cadmium and arsenic, which are associated with cancer and various other serious health effects. EPA’s risk assessment demonstrates that, without proper protections, these contaminants can leach into groundwater and can migrate to drinking water sources, posing significant public health concerns.
The action by EPA will ensure for the first time that protective controls, such as liners and groundwater monitoring, are in place at new landfills to protect groundwater and human health. Existing surface impoundments will also require liners, with strong incentives to close the impoundments and transition to safer landfills, which store coal ash in dry form. The regulations will ensure stronger oversight of the structural integrity of impoundments in order to prevent accidents like the one at Kingston, Tennessee. The action also will promote environmentally safe and desirable forms of recycling coal ash, known as beneficial uses.
We have written about the dangers associated with structurally unsafe coal ash impoundments, which came to national attention in 2008 when an impoundment holding disposed waste ash generated by the Tennessee Valley Authority broke open, creating a massive spill in Kingston that covered millions of cubic yards of land and river. The spill displaced residents, required hundreds of millions of dollars in cleanup costs and caused widespread environmental damage. Shortly afterwards, EPA began overseeing the cleanup, as well as investigating the structural integrity of impoundments where ash waste is stored.
Coal combustion residual impoundments can be found in almost all states across America, most often on the properties of power plants. There are almost 900 landfills and surface impoundments nationwide. Since the spill at Kingston, EPA has been evaluating hundreds of coal ash impoundments throughout the country to ensure their structural integrity and to require improvements where necessary. The results of the assessments can be found on EPA’s Web site.
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