More than a year after a massive coal ash spill near Kingston, Tenn., the federal Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday asked for feedback on options for regulating coal ash ponds for the first time.
The ponds at power plants contain a mix of water and coal ash laced with toxic heavy metals, the by-product of burning coal to generate electricity.
Georgia Power has about 10 plants in the state with coal ash ponds, the company has said.
Its Plant Scherer in Monroe County is believed to be among the five largest coal ash ponds in the country, based on its own reports to the EPA. The company’s Plant Branch in Putnam County was identified by the EPA as one of fewer than 50 in the U.S. that were likely to cause deaths if they failed. Both have earthen dams like the one in Kingston.
The two regulatory approaches the EPA is considering are very different: One would basically treat coal ash as a hazardous waste, with federal enforcement of detailed requirements.
The other would create federal guidelines for handling coal ash as a solid waste, with rules that would be enforceable only through citizen lawsuits.
Under both options, the ash could still be reused in other products such as cement.
Environmental groups have long argued that coal ash should be treated as a hazardous waste. Justine Thompson, executive director of the Atlanta legal firm Greenlaw, said regulation with no federal enforcement is almost meaningless.
“That’s shifting the responsibility of government onto the citizens,” she said. “A law is only as good as its enforceability.”
Both EPA proposals would require liners for the coal ash ponds and groundwater testing around them. Existing ponds would have to install liners or close within five years.
Georgia Power spokesman Jeff Wilson said the company has always opposed treating coal ash as a hazardous waste. Beyond that, it needs more time to study the proposals before responding.
He said he didn’t know what installing a liner at the Scherer pond might cost.
About 1,033 tons of coal ash are deposited daily in the Plant Scherer ash pond, which is almost 19 times larger than the 40-acre pond that collapsed next to the Kingston Tennessee Valley Authority plant in 2008. That spill covered hundreds of acres with as much as 9 feet of gray muck, destroyed homes and contaminated the Emory River.
TVA considered a landfill in Taylor County as a disposal site for the coal ash waste from the Emory River, but the agency chose an Alabama landfill instead. TVA spokeswoman Barbara Martocci said Wednesday that the company is deciding how to deal with the remaining waste on its own property this month, and will then consider possible disposal locations.
The Georgia Environmental Protection Division would likely be delegated the responsibility for enforcing any new federal coal ash rules. Mark Smith, chief of the EPD land protection branch, said he thinks the state can protect human health by regulating the ash as a solid waste rather than as hazardous waste. He said if the EPA does choose to regulate coal ash as hazardous waste, the state will need federal funding to be able to afford the additional workload.
Smith noted that solid-waste rules already cover household hazardous wastes that are thrown into landfills. The solid waste branch also already monitors coal ash landfills once they close.
The solid waste program has 23 employees who handle 500 landfills and 850 surface mines, said Jeff Cown, the EPD solid waste program manager.
EPA will accept comments on its proposals for 90 days after they are published in The Federal Register, which hasn’t happened yet. To learn more, visit www.epa.gov/coalashrule.
To contact writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.