Still unresolved, Tennessee coal-ash spill only one EPA hurdle

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 22, 2009

When the dam broke -- a year ago Tuesday, a little after midnight -- Sandy Gupton thought she was hearing two trains colliding. It wasn't until morning that she saw what had really happened near Kingston, Tenn.

It looked, Gupton said, "like a volcano had erupted."

An earth-and-ash dam holding back 1 billion gallons of waterlogged ash from a nearby power plant had failed, and the slurry flowed out to choke the Emery River and cover 85 acres of land.

One year later, most of the ash on the land is still there. And the problem of similar coal-ash ponds still sits on the long and fast-expanding to-do list of President Obama's Environmental Protection Agency.

Now -- after a year in which a climate-change summit in Copenhagen fell short of most expectations, and with a climate bill stalled in the U.S. Senate -- the EPA might shoulder more of the burden for an administration with historic environmental ambitions.

It has already laid plans to tackle greenhouse gases, smog, "mountaintop" coal mining, and the long-running fight to save the Chesapeake Bay. But the difficulties of dealing with coal ash illustrate why such problems can linger unsolved.

In the case of the Kingston spill, the agency first announced that it would rewrite the rules for handling coal ash. Industry groups protested, saying that if the EPA began defining coal ash as hazardous waste, that decision could backfire -- choking off a trade that recycles the material into concrete, and creating even more unwanted ash.

On Thursday, the agency announced that it would not meet its own year-end deadline for issuing a new rule to govern the handling of coal-ash storage. The decision would be delayed, the EPA said, "for a short period due to the complexity of the analysis the agency is currently finishing."

The agency said it remains committed to staying the course on its broader agenda.

"EPA under the Obama Administration has promised change and is working to deliver it through a rededication to science, transparency and the rule of law," EPA spokeswoman Adora Andy said in a statement Monday.

Many environmental groups have applauded the scope of the EPA's efforts in the past year, saying they were necessary to overcome what they characterized as years of inaction under President George W. Bush.

Some industry groups, however, have said the agency is overreaching, and that its new efforts will cost businesses and consumers.

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