EPA Taking Over Cleanup of Tennessee Coal Ash Disaster

A Tennessee town's sad saga may take a turn for the better now that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has decided to take control over the cleanup of the worst coal pollution disaster in U.S. history

Last December, a waste pond filled with 50 years worth of liquified coal ash waste at the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston Fossil Plant ruptured, polluting the Emory River and covering hundreds of acres downstream with a billion plus gallons of contaminated coal sludge.  Yesterday EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson announced that her agency will be "bringing to bear its resources and expertise" to oversee the cleanup of the massive coal ash spill.  EPA had been advising TVA and state authorities on disaster response but decided to exert federal authority to ensure that the cleanup will "get the job done for the people in Roane County and downriver communities," according to the agency's statement.  

"EPA will work with TVA and Tennessee to ensure that the cleanup of the site is comprehensive, based on sound scientific and ecological principles, moves as quickly as possible, and complies with all Federal and State environmental standards," said EPA Acting Regional Administrator Stan Meiburg. "Protection of public health and safety remains a primary concern, along with the long-term ecological health of the Emory and Clinch Rivers."

The EPA will require that TVA remove all coal ash from the river and surrounding areas, in compliance with federal Superfund standards.  According to EPA, the spilled coal ash is contaminated with arsenic, cadmium, chromium, copper, lead, mercury, nickel, selenium and zinc -- all are hazardous substances as defined under Superfund.  (In March, NRDC issued a report on the amount and toxicity of coal ash waste at coal plants around the country.) 

[UPDATE:  One out of every 50 people living near sites used to store ash or sludge from coal-fired power plants has a high risk of getting cancer, according to a just released government report kept from the public for seven years by the Bush administration.]

EPA will require that the disposal of the coal meet the same level of protective standards set for landfills, which requires synthetic liners, leachate collection systems and groundwater monitoring.  In addition, TVA must provide $50,000 so the community can hire an independent technical expert to review complex technical documents in order to facilitate public involvement.

This is yet another example of the Obama EPA taking responsible action to return the agency to its core mission, that of protecting America's natural resources and safeguarding public health.  In the wake of the Kingston spill, the Obama administration announced its intention to comprehensively inventory sites storing coal ash waste in liquid form and to propose federal regulations to ensure that coal waste is disposed of safely.  The next step is for EPA to finally regulate the disposal of dangerous waste from the nation's coal-fired power plants to ensure that no community in America experiences a disaster like the one that destroyed the quality of life for the residents of Roane County, Tennessee.