STEVE INSKEEP, host:
A Tennessee disaster has raised a lot of questions about the seemingly obscure subject of regulations of coal ash. A huge amount of coal ash spilled from a plant near Knoxville last week. It happened at a utility plant run by the Tennessee Valley Authority. It destroyed nearby homes and displaced some families. NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports on the substance that spread everywhere.
ELIZABETH SHOGREN: Coal ash is the stuff that's left over after coal-fired power plants generate electricity and strip out pollutants. Plants produce about 130 million tons of it every year.
Mr. ERIC SCHAEFFER (Head, Environmental Integrity Project): That's enough to fill a line of railroad boxcars stretching from the U.S. all the way to Australia.
SHROGEN: Eric Schaeffer heads the Environmental Integrity Project. He's been watching the growing heaps of coal ash stored at 440 electricity plants around the country.
In the case of TVA's Kingston plant, the waste had been accumulating for 50 years. It covered more than a 100 acres and rose 65 feet into the air before it collapsed. Glen Pugh is in charge of regulating the landfill.
Mr. GLEN PUGH (Solid Waste Manager, Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation): I do think our regulations provide for the proper checks, and reviews, and evaluations.
SHROGEN: Pugh manages solid waste for the Tennessee Department of Environmental Quality. He says despite the accident, he thinks the regulations were adequate, and TVA was following them.
Mr. PUGH: Something happened here that was unexpected.
SHROGEN: But Eric Schaeffer says the accident didn't surprise him.
Mr. SCHAEFFER: We saw this several years ago in Pennsylvania, a little town named Forward Township got buried in a landslide, really a mud slide of fly ash. And we went in and tested the ash, and in turned out to be toxic, also full of arsenic like the TVA site.
SHROGEN: Schaeffer says disasters are waiting to happen in other places because coal ash is not subject to the strict federal regulations that govern hazardous wastes. Instead, it's up to the states to regulate it and some don't. Most treat it like it's not toxic.
Mr. SCHAEFFER: The prevailing myth is that it's safe. We have EPA sort of buying into that for many years, and really refusing to regulate this material for what it is which is highly toxic ash that leeches metals like arsenic, and cadmium, and mercury into drinking water and into rivers and creeks.
SHROGEN: In 1980, Congress asked the EPA if coal ash should be regulated as a hazardous waste. In 1993, the agency said no, but kept researching the question. In 2000, it said it should be regulated, but as a non-hazardous waste. So far the agency hasn't produced any rules. Matt Hale heads the EPA's solid waste office.
Mr. MATT HALE (Head, Solid Waste Office, EPA): We're looking into what are the appropriate ways to set federal standards for coal ash, landfills, and impoundments.
SHROGEN: So basically, EPA has been studying this problem for 28 years, is that right?
Mr. HALE: That's right. Yeah.
SHROGEN: Why has it taken so long?
Mr. HALE: There's been a considerably amount of technical work. Simply, the process has required this amount of time.
SHROGEN: Jim Roewer of the Utility Solid Waste Activities Group says there's no need for federal oversight because states are doing a fine job of regulating the hundreds of ash pits around the country.
Mr. JIM ROEWER (Utility Solid Waste Activities Group): I think the fact that we've only seen four of these rather spectacular events over the last 50 years would underscore the fact this really isn't an epidemic problem or trend that would call for some sort of federal intervention.
SHROGEN: But environmentalists say that they think that TVA ash slide will become the Exxon Valdez of the coal industry, and force government to finally regulate coal ash storage.
Elizabeth Shrogen, NPR News, Washington.