Groups Urge Regulation of Coal-Ash Retention Ponds

March 1, 2010
Two environmental groups have urged the Obama Administration to release an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rule that would further restrict the operation of coal ash retention ponds.


Two environmental groups have urged the Obama Administration to release an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rule that would further restrict the operation of coal ash retention ponds.

The Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) and Earthjustice claimed that the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) was prolonging its review of the draft rule, which is directed at the waste produced by coal-fired power plants.

The regulation came in response to the December 2009 spill of more than a billion gallons of coal ash from a Tennessee Valley Authority facility near Harrimon, Tenn. After a dam failed, coal ash sludge polluted the Emory and Clinch Rivers. The $1 billion cleanup of the spill will continue until 2013 (see January-February column).

EPA had expected to get OMB’s approval to issue the draft rule last December. Administrator Lisa Jackson said in early March that EPA now hoped to issue the proposed rule by April.

Coal companies and associations have complained to OMB that the economy could be damaged if coal waste is labeled a hazardous material. They said some power plants might have to close and noted that 40% of the coal waste is recycled into other products, such as cement and drywall.

In a report, EIP and Earthjustice identified 31 coal-ash sites in 14 states -- in addition to the 70 sites that EPA had used as justification for the draft rule. The report said that arsenic and other toxic metal levels in contaminated water at some of the disposal sites are as much as 145 times higher than federally allowed levels.

Of the 31 sites, Pennsylvania and North Carolina had six each; Florida and South Carolina had three each; Indiana, Tennessee and West Virginia had two each; and Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, and New Mexico had one each.

The report said 25 of the 31 were still active disposal sites and 26 had contamination that exceeded one or more federal drinking water standards. Arsenic at 19 sites was at extremely high levels: one site had nearly 150 times the federal standard.

EIP’s Jeff Stant said, “While the catastrophic spill at TVA’s Kingston plant has become the poster child for the damage that coal ash can wreak, there are hundreds of leaking sites throughout the U.S. where the damage is deadly, but far less conspicuous. This problem needs an immediate national solution -- in the form of federally enforceable standards that protect every community near coal ash dump sites.”

WaterSMART Program

Interior Department Sec. Ken Salazar has ordered his agency to increase water supplies available for agricultural, municipal, industrial, and environmental uses in the western U.S. by 350,000 acre-feet by 2012.

That action came under Interior’s WaterSMART (Sustain and Manage America’s Resources for Tomorrow) Initiative. The Obama Administration has proposed to double WaterSMART funding to $72.9 million in the fiscal 2011 budget.

Salazar said, “The federal government’s existing water policies and programs simply aren’t built for 21st Century pressures on water supplies.” He said the challenges include population growth, climate change, rising energy demands, environmental needs, aging infrastructure, and risks to drinking water supplies.

The WaterSMART secretarial order expands the Bureau of Reclamation’s grant programs and its studies of entire river basins; establishes a clearinghouse to provide assistance to government and water entities; supports energy projects and actions that promote sustainable water strategies; and seeks to reduce water consumption by industrial operations.

Separately, Salazar said the Reclamation Bureau is forecasting average-tobetter-than-normal water supplies for the Central Valley of California this year. The valley has experienced drought the past three years.

Most agricultural users would be allocated 100% of their contract quantities. Municipal and industrial water service contractors north of the San Francisco Bay Delta would be allocated 100% and those south of the Delta, 75%.

The Secretary said, “The reality is that the Bay Delta ecosystem has collapsed and a major, long-term solution is needed to secure reliable water flows. We are looking forward to input from the National Academy of Sciences on these questions and will continue to aggressively pursue a comprehensive water supply and restoration plan.”

Great Lakes Action Plan

EPA has issued a five-year action plan to improve the quality of water in the Great Lakes.

A year ago, President Barack Obama proposed $475 million for a Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which he said was the most significant investment in the Great Lakes in two decades. Sixteen federal agencies participated in a task force that developed the five-year plan.

EPA noted 30 million Americans get their drinking water from the Great Lakes. The lakes also support a multibillion dollar economy based on fishing, boating and recreational activities.

The plan would protect and clean up the most polluted areas of the lakes, combat invasive species, protect high priority watersheds and reduce runoff from urban and agricultural sources, restore wetlands, and launch outreach and strategic partnerships.

EPA said it has received more than 1,000 proposals for funding to support Great Lakes restoration activities. Other federal agencies also will consider funding for projects.

Mississippi River Watersheds

The Department of Agriculture is seeking project proposals to improve water quality in 41 Mississippi River watersheds across parts of 12 states.

The Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative is expected to provide about $320 million in financial assistance over four years for agricultural and private forest agricultural projects.

The Environmental Defense Fund said the Mississippi Valley initiative addresses one of the nation’s biggest environmental priorities. It said, “Among the most significant challenges facing the Mississippi River is the runoff of excess nutrients from manure and commercial fertilizer, specifically nitrogen and phosphorus. When these nutrients end up in streams, they contribute to both local water quality problems and the ‘dead zone’ in the Gulf of Mexico.”

EPA Outlines Stricter Drinking Water Standards

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will be developing a new set of strategies with the aim to “strengthen public health protection” from contaminants in drinking water.

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson announced in March that the agency will be revising existing drinking water standards to introduce stricter regulations for four contaminants that it said can cause cancer.

In the review of existing drinking water standards, EPA determined that scientific advances allow for stricter regulations for the carcinogenic compounds tetrachloroethylene, trichloroethylene, acrylamide and epichlorohydrin.

Tetrachloroethylene and trichloroethylene are used in industrial and/or textile processing and can be introduced into drinking water from contaminated ground or surface water sources. Acrylamide and epichlorohydrin are impurities that can be introduced into drinking water during the water treatment process.

Within the next year, EPA will initiate rulemaking efforts to revise the tetrachloroethylene and trichloroethylene standards using the strategy’s framework. Revision of epichlorohydrin and acrylamide standards will follow later.

“To confront emerging health threats, strained budgets and increased needs - today’s and tomorrow’s drinking water challenges - we must use the law more effectively and promote new technologies. That means fostering innovation that can increase costeffective protection,” Jackson said.

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