Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Rural communities have become the dumping grounds for coal ash, still not heavily regulated

Shutterstock photo shows coal-ash slurry being deposited near a power plant.
There are about 2,000 coal-ash landfills in the U.S., many of them operating in rural areas where no permits or public process is required to start bringing in coal ash, Joe Werth and Molly Samuel report for NPR. That's not settling well with small communities, such as Wayne County in southeast Georgiawhere about 90 to 100 train cars bring in 10,000 tons of coal ash every day. Wayne County Commissioner Ralph Hickox told NPR, "I don't want to become the nation's dump. We didn't create the coal ash here; I don't want the coal ash here."

Werth and Samuel write, "Currently, there is little medical evidence for some residents' claims that coal ash has contributed to health problems. But the federal government recently funded a long-term study exploring the issue. In 2014, 16 million tons of coal ash were used for what's known as minefill, and the numbers keep rising. It's now the main way the industry recycles the fossil fuel waste. Mine-filling is considered a beneficial use for coal ash—and a success story for the industry. The Department of Interior oversees the practice and has yet to regulate it."

Power companies used to keep coal ash "in big, open holes called coal ash ponds. No lining was required to stop leakage, and no monitoring, to even know if it was leaking," Werth and Samuel write. "Then, in 2008, a ruptured dike spilled more than a billion gallons of coal ash slurry from a pond operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considered classifying coal ash as 'hazardous waste.' The utility industry lobbied hard—and successfully—to avoid the hazardous waste designation. So in 2014, EPA's new rules said coal ash was not hazardous. Now, power companies must recycle the ash, store it more securely on site, or send the ash to landfills. But in the towns where that ash is ending up, nobody is quite happy with those options."

"There are some signs that government officials are getting more concerned about coal ash," Werth and Samuel write. "The Oklahoma State Department of Health recently pledged to investigate cancer rates in Bokoshe. And the Department of Interior says it is writing a new rule on minefilling, to be released by the end of the year. That will set up a whole new fight over coal waste regulations."

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