Saturday, January 10, 2009
Millions of tons of toxic coal ash is piling up in power plant ponds in 32 states, a situation the U.S. government has long recognized as a risk to human health and the environment but has done nothing about.
An Associated Press analysis of the most recent Energy Department data found that 156 coal-fired power plants store ash in surface ponds similar to one that ruptured last month in Tennessee. Yesterday, a pond at a northeastern Alabama power plant spilled a different material -- water laced with calcium sulfate, a component of a material known as gypsum -- and some lawmakers said the incident was more evidence that Congress needs to overhaul coal waste regulations.
"One disaster convinced me that we ought to subject coal ash impoundments to federal design, construction and inspection requirements," said Rep. Nick J. Rahall II (D-W.Va.), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee. "But two incidents in less than three weeks at a TVA site illustrate that we must act swiftly if we hope to ensure a basic level safety for our communities and the environment."
The man-made lagoons hold a mixture of the noncombustible ingredients of coal and the ash trapped by equipment designed to reduce air pollution from the power plants.
Over the years, the volume of waste has grown as demand for electricity has increased and the federal government has further restricted emissions from power plants.
The Environmental Protection Agency eight years ago said it wanted to set a national standard for ponds or landfills used to dispose of wastes produced from burning coal. The agency has yet to act.
As a result, coal ash ponds are subject to less regulation than landfills accepting household trash, even though the industry's own estimates show that ash ponds contain tens of thousands of pounds of toxic heavy metals.