There aren't a lot of answers yet about what caused the catastrophic Dec. 22 spill of coal ash from a Tennessee Valley Authority plant near Knoxville. But the disaster has raised lots of questions about whether regulations of coal ash are strict enough.
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.
"That's enough to fill a line of railroad boxcars stretching all the way from the U.S. to Australia," says Eric Schaeffer, head of a watchdog group called the Environmental Integrity Project. He says he's been watching the growing heaps of coal ash stored at 440 electricity plants around the United States.
In the case of the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston Fossil Plant, the waste had been accumulating for half a century. The mountain of sludge covered more than 100 acres and rose 65 feet into the air before an earthen dam burst, spilling 5.4 million cubic yards of ash that fouled homes and about 300 acres, as well as a river.
Glen Pugh manages solid waste for the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation and is in charge of regulating the landfill. He says that despite the accident, the regulations were adequate, and TVA was following them.
"I do think our regulations provide for the proper checks and reviews and evaluations," Pugh says. "Something happened here that was unexpected."
Schaeffer says the accident came as no surprise to him.
"We saw this several years ago in Pennsylvania. A little town named Forward Township got buried in a landslide of fly ash," he says. "We went in and tested the ash, and it turned out to be toxic, also full of arsenic just like the TVA site."
Schaeffer says disasters are waiting to happen in other places because coal ash isn't subject to strict federal regulations that govern hazardous wastes. Instead, it's up to states to regulate it — and some don't. Most treat coal ash as though it's not toxic.
"The prevailing myth is that it's safe," Schaeffer says. "We have EPA buying into that for years and really refusing to regulate this material for what it is, which is highly toxic ash that leashes metals like arsenic, cadmium and mercury into drinking water and rivers and creeks."
In 1980, Congress asked the Environmental Protection Agency whether coal ash should be regulated as a hazardous waste. The agency said no in 1993, but kept researching the question. In 2000, the EPA said it should be regulated, but as a nonhazardous waste. So far, however, the agency hasn't produced any rules.
Matt Hale, head of the EPA's solid waste office, says the agency has been studying the problem for 28 years. It's taken so long because, he says, "there's been a significant amount of technical work. Simply, the process has required this amount of time."
Some people think federal oversight is unnecessary. Jim Roewer of the Utility Solid Waste Activities Group says states are doing a fine job of regulating the hundreds of ash pits around the country.
"I think that we've only seen four of these rather spectacular events over the last 50 years would underscore the fact that this really isn't an epidemic problem or trend that would call for federal intervention," Roewer says.
But environmentalists say the TVA ash slide will become the Exxon Valdez of the coal industry — and force government to finally regulate coal ash storage.