Defining the Legacy of TVA's Kingston Ash-Spill Disaster

In late October, the Government Accountability Office, Congress's independent research arm, released a report on the status of EPA's efforts to regulate coal-ash disposal. The report opened with the TVA spill, and detailed how, for nearly 30 years, the EPA has toyed with the idea of classifying coal ash as hazardous waste, thus replacing a patchwork of state regulations—some states don't regulate coal combustion waste at all—with firm federal guidelines. It found that, as of September, the EPA still didn't know how many coal ash ponds exist but had identified nearly 600 surface impoundments nationwide.

Each time the EPA has approached the decision—in 1980, 1993, 2000—it's opted against federal regulation, depositing the issue for some future administration to dredge up. With the Kingston spill, Lisa Jackson, head of the EPA, has promised to deliver a proposal for coal-ash regulation by the end of the year.

Options before Jackson include: 1) designating coal ash as a hazardous waste, thus imposing strict "cradle-to-grave" guidelines. Industry opposes this due to the increased cost it would impose on utilities and the implications for the reuse of ash; 2) deciding that federal regulation is not needed, leaving the issue largely to the states' consideration. Environmental groups oppose this because they believe states either cannot or will not provide adequate oversight; or 3) offering up some sort of half-measure, such as regulating wet-ash disposal—the specific type of impoundment that failed at Kingston—and leaving dry-ash disposal to state control. The last measure would likely push the industry towards dry-ash disposal, which, of the two types of storage, is generally more expensive but also clearly preferred by environmental groups.

However, it's not without its dangers to public health.

Residents in Gambrills, Md., recently won a $54 million class-action settlement from Constellation Power Generation, a subsidiary of Constellation Energy, when a dry-ash impoundment leached contaminants into the community's drinking water.

"These are called dry landfills, but in fact, they're very leaky," says Jennifer Peterson, an attorney who works on coal-ash litigation for the Environmental Integrity Project, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit. "There are many instances in which the ground cells are leaking into groundwater. They are discharging metals into surface waters." According to the EPA, through 2005 there were 67 such instances of leakage, more than half of which occurred at dry disposal sites.

"To separate dry and wet and say that one or the other is acceptable—all coal combustion waste contains these heavy metals," Peterson says. "When you have toxic material that's contained in a wet form, there's a greater likelihood of metals leaching into the environment."

TVA's announcement that it would convert its six remaining wet-storage plants to dry storage, including Kingston, at a cost of between $1.5 and $2 billion, was met with approval by many. But TVA's yet to make public its schedule for converting those impoundments, or specify the quality of dry-ash impoundments it plans to build or make use of.

This is significant, say environmental groups, because not all dry-ash impoundments are created equally. The gold standard, according to Peterson and others, is a double-lined impoundment with synthetic and clay liners, long-term monitoring, and site-characterization to ensure the waste can't easily leach into groundwater. At the current destination, the Arrowhead Landfill, in Alabama, there are dual liners, a leachate collection system, a protective covering and regular groundwater monitoring.

"We would like to see [TVA] behave as the model for the industry," says Lisa Evans, senior counsel with EarthJustice, another environmental non-profit. "One of the ways they can lead is to demonstrate that waste produced by burning coal and be disposed of safely and securely."

In the absence of new regulations, TVA won't commit to a self-imposed standard. "We will meet all the requirements of the state," says Kathryn Nash, environmental recovery project manager at TVA.

When the Kingston plant runs at full capacity, it burns 14,000 tons of coal, creating 1,000 tons of ash every day. Because of slackened demand, and the fact that the current waste produced is bundled with the ash dredged from the river and shipped to Alabama at great cost to TVA, the plant's burners haven't been running lately.

A new scrubber at Kingston, which just began operating in November at a cost of $500 million, removes sulfur dioxide from the air. Environmentalists have been pressing for this kind of upgrade for decades. But the Kingston disaster reminded the country that the waste isn't disappearing—it's simply being converted from air-borne particulate into a solid waste that must go somewhere.

"You can't get rid of it unless you put it on a rocket and shoot it in to space," says Renee Hoyos, executive director of the Tennessee Clean Water Network. "It's the message that no one wants to hear, but we've got to lower our consumption rate in order to get our hands around this. But who wants to lower their thermostat in the winter?"

To some, the Kingston spill highlights coal's hidden costs—which may not appear for 30 to 40 years, when the people responsible for them are long gone.