New Report: State Coal Ash Rules Inadequate

Charleston Gazette
17 August 2011
By Ken Ward Jr.

While federal regulation of toxic coal-ash handling and disposal seems stalled at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — and faces efforts for a congressional block by West Virginia Rep. David McKinley — the safety and environmental integrity of coal-ash impoundments around the country rests firmly with state regulators.

But how firm are the rules those state regulators use? Not very, at least according to a new report issued this morning by Earthjustice and Appalachian Mountain Advocates:

Our review reveals that most states do not require all coal ash landfills and ponds to employ the most basic safeguards required at household trash landfills, such as composite liners, groundwater monitoring, leachate collection systems, dust controls and financial assurance; nor do states require that coal ash ponds be operated to avoid catastrophic collapse. In addition, most states allow the placement of toxic coal ash in water tables and the siting of ponds and landfills in wetlands, unstable areas and floodplains. When measured against basic safeguards that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) identified as essential to protect health and the environment,1 state regulatory programs fail miserably to guarantee safety from contamination and catastrophe.

Earthjustice and Appalachian Mountain Advocates continued:

There are currently over 700 coal ash dams, many of which operate without adequate lining and no water quality monitoring, and have been operating in some instances for decades. Most states do not require coal ash ponds and dumps to employ the most basic safeguards required at landfills for household garbage. Of the 37 states examined:

– Only 3 states require composite liners for all new coal ash ponds;

– Only 4 - 5 states require composite liners for all new coal ash landfills;

– Only 2 states require groundwater monitoring of all coal ash ponds;

– Only 4 states require groundwater monitoring of all coal ash landfills;

– Only 6 states prohibit siting of coal ash ponds into the water table;

– Only 17 states require regulatory inspections of the structural integrity of coal ash ponds.

Lisa Evans of Earthjustice said:

This report proves unequivocally that state programs, without federal mandates or oversight, are a recipe for disaster when it comes to protecting our health and our environment. Strong, federally enforceable safeguards are needed to guarantee that our drinking water remains free of arsenic, lead, mercury and other toxic metals found in coal ash. The myth that states are doing a good job protecting Americans from coal ash is absolutely busted.

And Mike Becher of Appalachian Mountain Advocates said:

The problem with relying on state regulations is that they are not designed for the unique problems of coal ash generally and coal ash impoundments particularly. While many coal ash impoundments are regulated by state dam safety programs, these programs were developed to deal with dams holding back water, not toxic substances. State solid waste programs, on the other hand, are not used to dealing with large impoundments and the threat of a catastrophic dam failure like the one seen in Kingston, Tennessee in 2008.