NRDC Urges Immediate Clean Up and Stronger Regulations of Coal Waste

Responds to Senate Hearing on Tennessee Sludge Spill


WASHINGTON (January 8, 2009) -- In response to the hearing convened today by Sen. Barbara  Boxer on the catastrophic coal combustion waste spill at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston Fossil Plant, the Natural Resources Defense Council issued the following statement and policy recommendations:
Following is a statement by Dr. Allen Hershkowitz, Senior Scientist at NRDC:
“This disaster is an urgent wake-up call for the government to take immediate action to protect hundreds of communities and thousands of people against the toxic sludge produced from coal -- not just in Tennessee, but throughout the country. EPA and the next administration must act quickly to clean-up this mess and strengthen the regulations around coal waste to prevent further reckless and dangerous contamination of our water, air and land.”
NRDC made the following recommendations to implement strong standards for coal waste and protect human health:
  • EPA should prohibit the construction of new surface waste impoundments and the expansion of existing impoundments, and promptly study the integrity of existing impoundments, including requirements to ensure that risky facilities be promptly close in order to eliminate long-term threats.

  • EPA should require that all landfills used for combustion waste disposal have adequate pollution controls, including composite liners, leachate collection and treatment systems, and groundwater and surface water monitoring systems. Perpetual long-term maintenance and bonding should be required.

  • EPA should require that all existing coal waste impoundments be drained, closed, and cleaned up, and that all surface impoundments closed within at least the last 20 years be evaluated for human health and environmental risks. 

  • TVA should immediately provide free and prompt medical and blood testing for all individuals and families who request it in the affected region and around other coal waste ponds.
Around the country, approximately 600 landfills and surface ponds store coal ash sludge and other wastes produced by burning coal. These contaminated wastes can pose a serious health threat, especially when spills occur. Coal combustion waste contains high levels of arsenic and other heavy metals such as cadmium and chromium. Among the greatest concerns is arsenic, a known human carcinogen that causes bladder, kidney, liver, lung, prostate and skin cancer.
As this horrific spill illustrates, many facilities used to dispose of coal combustion wastes are insufficient to prevent off-site contamination. Some instances, like the TVA disaster, involve catastrophic failures, while others are simply the result of inadequately designed disposal facilities. For example, across the nation, 40 percent of landfills accepting coal waste and 80 percent of surface impoundments do not have liners that would prevent contaminants from leaching into nearby water supplies.
Surface impoundments, such as the ones that spilled in Tennessee, are a particularly dangerous way to dispose of coal combustion waste. These impoundments, often lacking impermeable liners and groundwater monitoring systems, are large ponds in which the waste is disposed of as a watery mixture. This allows toxic substances to leach out and contaminate soil, groundwater, and surface water, putting public water supplies and drinking water wells are at risk of contamination. In addition to the human health risks, a 2006 National Research Council (NRC) report noted a large number of ecological effects related to water contamination from coal combustion waste surface impoundments. These included population declines and developmental abnormalities in fish, malformations in frogs, damage to plant life, and the accumulation of toxic arsenic, cadmium and selenium in bottom-dwelling organisms, among others.
A 2007 EPA draft risk assessment, evaluating 21 hazardous constituents is coal combustion waste, indicates that certain types of coal ash disposal sites pose a cancer risk about 1,000 times the level considered acceptable by the Agency. EPA itself has identified sites known or suspected to be contaminated by coal combustion waste in 24 states.
Nevertheless, EPA has not followed through on its own 2000 Regulatory Determination to regulate this waste, instead allowing states to continue to set their own weak rules. In 2000, EPA committed to develop national regulations for landfills and surface impoundments for storing coal combustion waste, but EPA has failed even to even propose regulations for these waste sites. Meanwhile the utility industry has lobbied hard to keep it that way.  In comments to EPA last year, a utility trade group argued “EPA can safely step back without investing the resources necessary to develop a new federal regulatory program and allow the states to remain the primary regulatory authority on [coal combustion waste] disposal.”
EPA has also failed to take a leadership role, even though it has the legal authority to act to remedy any “imminent and substantial endangerment to health and the environment” arising from waste disposal. The agency must promptly initiate a program to investigate and abate inadequate coal combustion waste disposal while proceeding with its rulemaking.
Similar coal waste ponds also litter Central Appalachia, repositories of the coal sludge by-products of mountaintop removal coal mining that threaten communities and contaminate mountain streams. These waste ponds also have a history of catastrophic failure, with similarly tragic results. In the end, the events in Kingston, TN, remind us once again of the high price we pay for our continued reliance on coal, and the irony of the myth of “clean coal.”