Coal Ash Rules must be Stronger

Posted in: Drinking Water News, United States Water News, Water Contamination, Water Crisis, Water dispute
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Article courtesy of The Virginian Pilot | January 11, 2015 | | Shared as educational material

Ignorance isn’t an excuse when things go terribly wrong.

Just ask America’s tobacco companies, which made a product that killed millions. Or the manufacturers of asbestos insulation, whose workers died in droves. Or the cookers of polychlorinated biphenyls or dioxins, both of which cause cancers and mess with endocrine systems in ways scientists are still trying to sort out.

If ignorance isn’t an excuse, neither is the government’s lax oversight.

Just because federal regulators didn’t inspect a chemical silo or a fertilizer plant or coal ash dump, just because they didn’t ban the use of asbestos or PCBs, doesn’t make manufacturers immune from responsibility if there’s a leak or explosion or downstream effect.

The Duke Energy coal ash spill into the Dan River, upstream from the Hampton Roads water supply, was an alarming example of the supine oversight that results when powerful companies have their way with intimidated regulators.

“[W]e have been generating electricity in this country from coal for decades,” Duke chief executive Lynn Good told “60 Minutes” host Lesley Stahl last month. “And that ash that has been produced has been stored in accordance with industry standards and practices for decades.”

Right up until as much as 39,000 tons of ash, and 29 million gallons of contaminated water, spilled into the Dan River from a Duke storage pond.

The February spill, caused by a collapsed stormwater pipe near a shuttered coal plant in Eden, N.C., coated the riverbottom for miles. The spill was so bad that N.C. regulators – after initially downplaying the hazards – eventually had to warn people to avoid contact with the water.

Although Duke made some effort to clean up the spill, there’s also no doubt that toxins, which include arsenic, mercury and lead, are now part of the riverbed. Much of the contaminants also made their way downstream, into the Kerr Reservoir, upstream from Lake Gaston.

Through a pipeline built at enormous political and financial cost, Lake Gaston provides drinking water for more than a million people in Hampton Roads.

That water supply was imperiled because Duke didn’t adequately monitor its coal ash pond in Eden, at least partially because federal law doesn’t require it to do so and because North Carolina’s regulators looked the other way.

Last month, the Environmental Protection Agency issued new federal regulations for coal ash disposal. At the urging of the power industry, the EPA regulations essentially treat coal ash the same as household garbage.

The rules increase monitoring of dumps and require more disclosure. They would require some leaking dumps to close and set standards for the aftermath, but on balance the regulations are inadequate. Early analysis shows the regulations wouldn’t have much effect in North Carolina.

Forceful regulation is of keen interest in Hampton Roads and not just because of the Duke spill.

Dominion Virginia Power stores a million-ton mountain of coal ash on the banks of the Elizabeth River, the residue of decades of operation at the Chesapeake Energy Center. The coal ash landfill is lined but was built on top of unlined and dried-out ash ponds.

Experts say the new regulations will have no effect on what happens during the closure of the landfill and pond in Chesapeake. That’s too bad.

Earlier reporting by The Pilot’s Jeff Sheler showed arsenic levels in testing wells were 30 times federal safety standards, with levels of cobalt and sulfide also above standards.

“Other pollutants, including barium, beryllium, lead, selenium and zinc, were detected at ‘significant levels above background.'”

The city of Chesapeake has made efforts to limit the risk to the river, although its authority is disputed. City officials have argued that Dominion should remove the ash now that the utility will no longer burn coal at the site.

Dominion counters that moving the coal ash presents its own hazards. Its closure plans include draining the existing ash pond, and covering both the pond and the landfill with an impermeable barrier that they say should prevent further contamination of groundwater.

Under current state guidelines, the company must monitor the landfill for a minimum of 10 years, though Virginia officials can require it to do so longer. In any event, the company will continue to operate at the site for the forseeable future.

Last month, the Southern Environmental Law Center and the Sierra Club threatened to sue Dominion over contamination at the site, alleging violations of the Clean Water Act. The organizations have said toxins are leaching into the Elizabeth River, already one of the most compromised waterways in America.

The river’s banks were once lined with the region’s heaviest polluters, some of whom dumped their effluent directly into the waterway. After years of effort by the Elizabeth River Project, industry, the city and neighbors, the river has begun showing real signs of life.

The new federal coal ash regulations were six years in the making and flowed directly from a horrific spill in Tennessee in 2008, the nation’s worst ever. Even before the regulations were released, the Dan River spill showed why they will be woefully inadequate.

Before the regulations become final, the EPA should revise them. They must be more stringent to ensure that they do what’s necessary to protect the nation’s water from contamination by coal ash.

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