As part of an announcement made on Friday, The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has labeled coal ash a nonhazardous waste. This classification sets national standards for how the waste should be treated and disposed of by energy companies.
Coal ash is the byproduct of burning coal to fuel electrical power plants. According to the EPA, coal-fired power plants generate an average of 136 million tons of ash every year. Like other forms of ash, it is easily absorbed by water and it can remain suspended in the air for long periods of time.
The announcement made by the EPA is the conclusion of a six-year effort to decide whether the waste should be considered hazardous or nonhazardous. Environmentalists have been pushing for the former classification, pointing to cases where it has contaminated rivers in the southeastern United States.
On Dec. 22, 2008, the earthen wall of a containment pond for a coal-fired power plant in Kingston, TN gave way, releasing over 5 million cubic yards of coal ash. The mixture of water and ash formed a sludge which flowed into the Clinch and Emory rivers and destroyed homes in its path. Six years later, the Tennessee Valley Authority is still cleaning up after this spill and the work is not expected to be complete until 2015. Even then, the TVA has admitted that 500,000 cubic yards of ash will be left at the bottom of these rivers.
On Feb. 2, 2014, a similar spill occurred at a Duke Energy power station near Eden, NC. A drainage pipe broke underneath a 27-acre containment pond. An estimated 39,000 tons of ash and 24 million gallons of wastewater drained into the pipe and subsequently into the Dan River, turning the water gray up to seventy miles downstream.
Energy companies, on the other hand, were relieved when they heard that the EPA labeled coal ash a nonhazardous waste. Declaring it a hazardous waste would force utility companies to install expensive ash-disposal and wastewater-treatment systems. It would also hinder their ability to recycle the ash. Currently, around 40 percent of the ash is sold to other manufacturers who use it to make products such as bricks and cement.
A new set of rules and regulations was also part of the EPA’s declaration that coal ash is nonhazardous. They are still forcing the utility companies to clean up the ash, and to take every precaution to prevent spills and possible contaminations in the future. The rules will improve monitoring systems for leaks and they will require companies to frequently test the water quality of surrounding waterways and to make these test results public. They also set standards for waste sites which will require some of them to close.
Even though some environmentalists might disagree with the EPA labeling coal ash as nonhazardous, everyone agrees that it is a step in the right direction. The EPA has set a new standard, one that will protect communities from the risks of coal ash waste sites and will hold energy companies accountable at the federal level.
By Dac Collins
Photo by Cathy – Flickr License