What is the best way to regulate coal ash?

In response to Tennessee Valley Authority's 2008 coal ash spill in Kingston, a new federal law will dictate how to store the toxic sludge. There are two options.
Written by Melissa Mahony, Contributor

A dike broke in 2008 unleashing the liquid coal ash it had been containing for a Tennessee Valley Authority power plant. About 1 billion gallons of toxic grey sludge covered 300 acres of Kingston, Tennessee and spilled into the Emory River.

Coal ash can contain arsenic, mercury, lead, barium, cadmium, and selenium. In liquid form, this residue from burning coal poses a contamination threat to groundwater sources. According to the American Coal Ash Association, power plants produced 136 million tons of the stuff in 2008. Nationwide, there are 900 landfills (for burying dry ash) and impoundments (or ponds for storing wet coal ash).

Until now, the Environmental Protection Agency hadn't regulated coal ash as a hazardous material under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. But they are considering doing so in one of two proposals released last week.

Option one:

  • Regulate coal ash a hazardous waste
  • Federal and State enforcement of performance requirements
  • Government-monitored corrective action

Option two:

  • Regulate coal ash similarly to garbage
  • State and/or citizen suit enforcement of performance standards
  • Self-implementing corrective action

More differences between the two are listed on this chart. Under both options, all coal ash ponds and future landfills will require liners. Neither regulatory scenario will impact the industry's recycling of coal ash into other products, such as concrete and wallboard.

Ken Silverstein of EnergyBiz Insider reports:

If the toxin would be regulated at as a hazardous material, the agency says that would cost industry $1.5 billion a year, whereas if it is viewed as a nonhazardous byproduct, it would run $600 million a year. By contrast, TVA is spending at least $1.2 billion to clean up the accident that covers 300 acres -- something that EPA contends might have been prevented if either of its two proposals had been in effect.

TVA says it will convert all of its wet coal ash to dry storage within the next decade.

Image: Wikipedia

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

Editorial standards