Coal Slurry Spill Prompts Scrutiny

May 1, 2009
With holiday newscasts trumpeting Tennessee spill last December, softened rules and lax enforcement spurs action by USEPA.

By Patrick Crow

With holiday newscasts trumpeting Tennessee spill last December, softened rules and lax enforcement spurs action by USEPA.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is putting the heat on the coal industry as part of the Obama Administration’s tougher line against pollution. In response to a massive coal sludge spill Dec. 22 in Tennessee, Administrator Lisa Jackson recently said the EPA would propose rules for coal-ash storage this year. The agency also will examine 300 other impoundments and dams used to store coal combustion residuals suspended in liquid.

The spill occurred at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston generating plant 35 miles southwest of Knoxville. After a dike failed, 5.4 million gallons of sludge covered 300 acres, destroyed three homes, damaged 42 other properties and contaminated the Emory River. TVA estimated the initial cleanup will cost from $525 million to $825 million, not including long-term costs.

Another option for disposing of coal sludge – injecting it into abandoned mines – also is coming under fire. State regulators often allow coal companies to dispose of slurry in abandoned, underground mines as a cheaper alternative to building dams or filtration/drying systems.

The Associated Press reported in March that two lawsuits were filed against coal companies in West Virginia, alleging chemicals and metals in sludge leaked into aquifers, contaminated well water and caused health problems. AP surveyed five Appalachian states that allow the practice (West Virginia, Kentucky, Alabama, Pennsylvania and Ohio) and found that none knew the chemical composition of the slurries or how much was being stored.

Meanwhile, EPA launched a campaign to ensure certain mining methods – particularly mountaintop mining – don’t pollute surface water. The agency recently told the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which issues Clean Water Act permits for proposed surface coal mining operations that could impact streams, wetlands and other waters, it had “serious concerns” about two proposed surface mines in West Virginia and Kentucky. Jackson said her agency would closely examine other mining permit requests and may ask to meet with Corps and mining company officials to discuss alternatives that would better protect streams, wetlands and rivers.

The Natural Resources Defense Council applauded EPA’s advocacy but urged the Obama Administration to shift permitting from the Corps to the EPA. The Sierra Club said, “Close to 2,000 miles of streams have been contaminated or destroyed by mountaintop removal coal mining, and communities throughout the Appalachian region suffer daily from contaminated drinking water, increased flooding, and a decimated landscape.”

About the Author: Patrick Crow covered the U.S. Congress and federal agencies for 21 years as a reporter for industry magazines. He has reported on water issues for more than 10 years. Crow is now a Houston, TX-based freelance writer.

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