The Urgency of Toxic Coal Ash Regulation and the Move to Clean Energy

Almost two years after largest industrial hazardous waste spill in US history, coal ash remains unregulated by the federal government, subject only to patchwork state regulation.
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The Comment Period regarding EPA regulation of coal ash has been extended to 11/19/10 online. Comments (referenced as "Docket ID No. EPA-HQ-RCRA-2009-0640") can be emailed to or mailed. For info., visit and search "EPA-HQ-RCRA-2009-0640."

The largest industrial hazardous waste spill in U.S. history occurred at the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston Coal-Fired Plant in December 2008. A 60-foot-tall retaining wall gave way, burying 400 acres of land and a dozen homes in six feet of more than a billion gallons of toxic wet gray coal sludge (100 times the Alaska Exxon Valdez oil spill). Parts of the Emory River were also polluted. Cleanup of the site continues, at a cost of more than $1 billion.

Almost two years later, coal ash remains unregulated by the federal government, subject only to patchwork state regulation. Of close to 1,000 disposal sites containing residual products of coal combustion in the U.S., 49 are regarded highly hazardous. Others are leaking or will leak contaminants into groundwater and the environment. Over 130 million tons of toxic coal ash waste is produced annually by U.S. coal-fired power plants.

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson began to track data on coal waste surface impoundments like Kingston in 2009. Detection of significant toxic releases in wastewater prompted a proposal to bring coal ash management under the national law that regulates solid waste, the Resource Conservation and Recover Act (RCRA). Unregulated as toxic waste, coal ash has been found to have excess levels of at least 10 toxic pollutants, including mercury, arsenic, lead, nickel and selenium, contributing to higher rates of cancer, respiratory and neurological disorders in the population.

On September 2 at one of seven regional hearings held by the Environmental Protection Agency around the country during September, people came from six western states to Denver to share their stories of effects of living near coal ash storage sites.

Representatives of the Hopi and Navajo families of Black Mesa, Arizona have resisted for almost four decades forced relocation by the U.S. government from lands coveted by the Peabody Coal Company for expansion of large-scale coal mining. Living on lands containing the largest coal deposit in the U.S, Navajo woman Eloise Brown testified that her community experiences five times greater than normal respiratory problems, ten times greater for children. Some report double the cancer rates in coal mining areas.

Clint, a Montana cattle rancher, traveled to Denver to speak for coal ash regulation. His cattle ranch sits in the shadow of four coal power plants in Colstrip, Montana, where water levels of sulfates test 16 times higher than toxic levels. He sees that it is only a matter of time until further contamination from nearby sludge detention ponds leaches into his land and water.

A Coloradan reported watching as truckloads of coal ash were carted away during a tour of the Cherokee Coal Plant just north of Denver. The residue of burning coal is often deposited in landfills or slurry ponds, with risk of heavy metals like mercury, arsenic, lead and selenium eventually leaching into drinking water. Of 40 coal slurry ponds at 10 coal burning plants in Colorado, at least two have had spills - the Comanche Station in Pueblo and the Valmont Station in Boulder in 2007 and 2008, respectively.

Since the EPA under the Bush administration endorsed the "beneficial use" of coal ash, it has been recycled in dozens of ways - as fill for roadbeds, addition to grout, wallboard, cement, agricultural products, and products from "carpets to bowling balls to bathroom sinks." It has been stored in deserted mines, and used to build a golf course in Chesapeake, Virginia.

The EPA also permitted coal ash dredged from the Tennessee spill site to be transferred to a dry landfill in high-poverty areas in rural Alabama and Georgia.

Comments to the EPA have been focused on two alternate proposed sets of guidelines for coal ash regulation. Subtitle D, known as the "status quo" option, would continue patchwork oversight by individual states, counting on enforcement solely by the filing of individual lawsuits.

Subtitle C, the option favored overwhelmingly by those testifying in Denver before the EPA, is more rigorous, calling for state and federal enforcement, and monitoring by the EPA. Subtitle C would regulate coal ash as a toxic substance, requiring composite liners in storage ponds, water run-off controls, groundwater monitoring and assurance that companies will pay to clean up any resulting pollution. The Sierra Club calls the BP Oil disaster in the Gulf and the Tennessee coal tragedy urgent wake-up calls, confirming the folly of self-regulation by polluters.

Transitioning from Coal to Clean Energy

On August 18 Xcel Energy filed a plan with the Colorado Public Utilities Commission designed to comply with HB 1365, the Clean Air-Clean Jobs law passed by the Colorado General Assembly in April. The goal: to replace dirty coal-fired generation with cleaner energy solutions in compliance with air quality regulations for reduced ozone and smog, while creating clean energy jobs.

The Xcel plan proposes the retirement of 5 Denver metro area coal-fired power units, the equivalent of 903 megawatts of coal-fired power production along the front range. Remaining coal plants would be converted to natural gas, supplemented with clean energy alternatives over 12 years.

Gains from Xcel's plan to shutdown older coal-fired plants were partly offset by the September opening of the largest coal-fired power plant in the state, Comanche Unit 3, a new 750-megawatt coal plant in Pueblo. Xcel's own data reveals that the Comanche 3 plant would emit over 20 million pounds of CO2 a day, two pounds of mercury a week and thousands of tons of particulates and haze-forming pollutants every year, and consume over 4 million gallons of water a day.

Comments on Xcel's proposed plan at a September 23 PUC hearing in Denver reflected differing economic realities statewide. Second and third generation coal miners from Craig and northwestern Colorado made the 8-hour round-trip to the Denver hearing to protest the potential loss of good-paying coal-industry jobs that would result from a transition to natural gas or renewable energy. Sporting shirts that read "Clean Coal Technology," they urged cleaning up coal plants and retrofitting them with scrubbers.

Other energy advocates touted natural gas as an ideal long-term base-load fuel, to be supplemented by renewable wind and solar energy. Opponents noted that natural gas prices are volatile and potentially very costly. Also, the process of hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," of shale to extract natural gas releases benzene, a known carcinogen that has also seeped into drinking water that ignites when a match is held to it.

The imperative to move quickly past fossil fuels to clean energies - wind, solar and biomass - and conservation measures such as retrofitting homes, was noted by those reporting that 2009 and 2010 have been the hottest years on record, and Boulder and Jefferson County (where Coors operates a coal-fired plant) have earned an "F" grade for ozone levels in recent years.

By contrast to the western slope, a Wray, Colorado resident told the PUC that the eastern plains aspire to be "the Saudi Arabia of wind energy." He applauded HR 1365 for its potential to create jobs and boost the local tax base. At least four Colorado wind farms extending from southeast Colorado in Prowers County to northeastern Weld County produce from 162 to 400 megawatts of power each. Some Colorado wind farms exist on working cattle ranches as dual land use projects. Wind farms have generated several hundred jobs during construction, and created 20-30 permanent jobs each. Xcel Energy has purchased wind farm energy output, permitting the company by 2007 to meet the requirements of Colorado's renewable-energy standard seven years early.

Accelerated Development of Renewable Energy by Institution of Feed-In Tariffs
Much of the world has outpaced the U.S. in the adoption of renewable energy, due largely to adoption of Feed-In Tariffs (FIT). Called by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden "the most widely used renewable energy policy in the world," the FIT is a premium paid by a utility for power generated by solar, wind power or biomass to farmers, homeowners and businesses. The FIT encourages and accelerates the development of renewable energy sources, "democratizing" electricity production and reducing the need to build central power plants. FIT permit investors to be paid back for their investment - in contrast to U.S. net metering, where excess electricity generated by PV panels on the roof is sold back to Xcel at wholesale prices.

U.S. landowners typically receive less than 5 percent royalties from out-of-state wind developers, whereas, landowners operating their own wind turbines in Europe increase their revenues 10 times over those they would earn by simply leasing their lands to a utility. Lacking the proper infrastructure, U.S. farmers and others are unable to transmit energy to the grid.

Paul Gipe, an industry analyst and advocate of Feed-in Tariffs, notes that the FIT encourages the development of renewable energy sources at less cost, drives industrial development and creates new jobs. During the first six months of 2010, Germany, where some homes produce more energy than they use, installed twice the total solar photovoltaic systems installed in the United States during the last 20 years. Germany's system of feed-in tariffs has reportedly resulted in the creation of 300,000 new jobs since the program was launched a decade ago.

Several state legislators attended one of Gipe's presentations about Feed-in Tariffs in Denver on September 17 - hopefully a good sign for advancing renewable energy in Colorado.

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