In December 2008, the 84-acre coal ash surface impoundment at the Tennessee Valley Authority's (TVA) Kingston coal-fired power plant failed and released over a billion gallons of coal combustion waste. It's estimated that this release could ultimately cost a billion dollars to remediate because 300+ acres were covered by the flood of coal ash slurry. At question is does the U.S. need more traditional coal-fired power plants and what to do with the ash slurry mess?

Coal Ash Safety Issues

Donald Saxman | STIX, Inc.

The Army Corps of Engineers started dredging the clogged Emory River and may have to work on the nearby Clinch River. A decision must be made on where to contain the coal ash dredging, and then the deep layers of dried coal ash. The TVA power plant is still operating and new coal ash is generated every day. Stakeholders and planners are engaged in a complex exchange that could alter the way the nation's power plants do business -- or not. There has been little agreement on what to do about the coal ash situation, or just how serious the problem really is.
 
The Army Corps is charged with keeping navigable waterways safe and open and one of their first priorities was to assess the situation and determine whether any other utility coal ash containment facilities were likely to fail.
 
According to Senator Barbara Boxer, Chairwoman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, "After the devastating Kingston spill, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee immediately held an oversight hearing to better understand this incident and how to avoid similar disasters in the future... When EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson came before our Committee for her confirmation hearing a week later, she committed to move immediately to address the threat posed by coal ash waste." Boxer continued, "We know EPA has collected a substantial amount of information on coal combustion waste sites nationwide. We also understand the Agency has identified several hundred coal ash piles across the country. To date, they have identified 44 sites that pose a 'high hazard.' A 'high hazard' rating means that they are located in such a way that if these coal ash ponds were to fail, they would pose a threat to the people living nearby."
 
Shortly after the spill, Boxer asked the EPA to immediately follow up on these 44 sites and to ensure that the public is protected and the EPA began to notify local officials, including first responders, about the 'high hazard' sites.   Then the Homeland Security Department got involved. Boxer says, "I am concerned that the EPA, after consulting with the Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of Homeland Security, has indicated that they cannot make the list of 'high hazard' sites public."
 
A widely reported statement from Homeland Security says, "The Presidential Administration has decided to keep secret the locations of nearly four dozen coal ash storage sites that pose a threat to people living nearby. The EPA classified the 44 sites as potential hazards to communities while investigating storage of coal ash waste after a spill at a Tennessee power plant in December 2008. The classification means the waste sites could cause death and significant property damage if an event such as a storm, a terrorist attack, or a structural failure caused them to spill into surrounding communities...The Army Corps of Engineers in a letter dated June 4 told the EPA and the Federal Emergency Management Agency that the public should not be alerted to the whereabouts of the sites because it would compromise national security. "Uncontrolled or unrestricted release (of the information) may pose a security risk to projects or communities by increasing its attractiveness as a potential target."
 
Boxer confirmed the secrecy, saying, "We are pursuing whether the handling of these sites is consistent with the handling of other similar facilities, because of the critical importance of the public's right to know about threats in their communities. If these sites are so hazardous and if the neighborhoods nearby could be harmed irreparably, then I believe it is essential to let people know... In that way, they can press their local authorities who have responsibility for their safety to act now to make the sites safer."
 
She promised, "I am sending a letter to the Department of Homeland Security, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the EPA to ask for further information on whether the public disclosure of coal ash waste sites is consistent with the treatment of other hazardous sites. One of the lessons we all learned from the TVA spill is that a close look at these facilities is extremely important, and we cannot rely on general assurances that these sites are safe. That is why I am pleased that on-the-ground inspections have begun. "
 
Environmental activists are expressing concern and distress at the "secret list" and Internet bloggers are considering the whole matter a challenge. The locations of coal fired power plants are well-established and lists of coal ash containment facilities are reported through 2005. In 2005, DOE stopped publishing updated lists, but lists of the 156 largest U.S. coal ash ponds are only four years out of date and are available.
 
Location
Utility (as of 2005)
Tons in 2005
Montana, Rosebud County
PPL Montana LLC
963,600
Indiana, Gibson County
PSI Energy Inc.
897,800
Ohio, Adams County
Dayton Power & Light Co.
653,300
Kentucky, Carroll County
Kentucky Utilities Co.
634,700
Pennsylvania, Beaver County
Pennsylvania Power Co.
568,400
Georgia, Heard County
Georgia Power Co.
536,700
Ohio, Jefferson County
Cardinal Operating Co.
490,400
Michigan, Monroe County
Detroit Edison Co.
482,000
Georgia, Monroe County
Georgia Power Co.
470,600
New Mexico, San Juan County
Arizona Public Service Co.
461,700
Georgia, Putnam County
Georgia Power Co.
416,300
Alabama, Jackson County
Tennessee Valley Authority
407,600
West Virginia, Putnam County
Appalachian Power Co.
391,900
Minnesota, Sherburne
Northern States Power Co.
355,700
Tennessee, Roane County
Tennessee Valley Authority
325,900
Virginia, Chesterfield County
Virginia Electric & Power Co.
322,600
Texas, Milam County
TXU Electric Co.
314,400
West Virginia, Marshall County
Ohio Power Co.
307,400
Alabama, Walker County
Alabama Power Co.
304,900
Kentucky, Lawrence County
Kentucky Power Co.
298,300
 
Based on U.S. DOE reports
 
 
Amateur mapping hobbyists could use Google Map to track down and pinpoint each of the 150+ ponds. A county is a big place, but a satellite image of a containment pond next to a power plant is distinctive. Knowing the locations and capacity of the 150+ coal ash ponds would not reveal the 44 most dangerous. It can be assumed that anyone with civil engineering skills could pick out potentially dangerous locations based on fairly simple criteria like proximity to homes, highways, or navigable rivers. To put this in perspective, here's a TVA image of the Kingston spill.
 
 
File:Aerial view of ash slide site Dec 23 2008 TVA.gov 123002.jpg
Orthographic aerial photograph of Kingston Fossil Plant coal fly ash slurry spill, in Kingston, TN, taken the day after the event
 
This was undoubtedly a coup for the environmental advocates, the bloggers, and the mappers. It's important to note that if they could quickly and easily do this research, then so could terrorists.
 
In late June 2009, according to a statement from the EPA, the situation was "resolved" and details on the 44 'high hazard' sites released. According to EPA530-F-09-006, "Fact Sheet: Coal Combustion Residues (CCR) - Surface Impoundments with High Hazard Potential Ratings," In response to an EPA information request on units handling wet or slurried CCRs, electric utilities have identified a total of 427 units managing slurried CCRs to date. Forty-four of these units at 26 different locations are assigned a high hazard potential rating, using the criteria developed by the National Dam Safety Program for the National Inventory of Dams. Hazard potential ratings are generally assigned by the State Dam Safety officials."
 
"The National Inventory of Dams hazard potential ratings address the potential consequences of failure or misoperation of the dam. A high hazard potential rating indicates that a failure will probably cause loss of human life. The rating is not an indication of the structural integrity of the unit or the possibility that a failure will occur in the future; it allows dam safety and other officials to determine where significant damage or loss of life may occur if there is a structural failure of the unit. EPA’s assessment of the 26 facilities that have units with high hazard potential ratings continues to be an Agency priority. EPA has conducted on-site assessments, which are undergoing Agency review, at 11 of these facilities. The remaining 15 of these facilities have had state inspections within the past 12 months and EPA will be reviewing the reports from those inspections. EPA plans to make public the results of our assessments as soon as they are completed."
 
According to the EPA, the following 44 coal combustion residue management units at 26 facilities now have a High Hazard Potential rating:
 
Company
Facility Name
Unit Name
Location/State Contact
Allegheny Energy
Pleasants Power Station
McElroy's Run Embankment
Willow Island, W VA
American Electric Power
Big Sandy
Fly Ash
Louisa, KY
American Electric Power
Cardinal
Fly Ash Reservoir 2
Brilliant, OH
American Electric Power
General James M Gavin
Fly Ash Pond
Cheshire, OH
American Electric Power
General James M Gavin
Bottom Ash Pond
Cheshire, OH
American Electric Power
John E Amos
Fly Ash Pond
St. Albans, W VA
American Electric Power
Mitchell
Fly Ash Pond
Moundsville, W VA
American Electric Power
Muskingum River
Unit 5 Bottom Ash Pond (Lower Fly Ash Pond)
Waterford, OH
American Electric Power
Muskingum River
Upper Fly Ash Pond
Waterford, OH
American Electric Power
Muskingum River
Middle Fly Ash Pond
Waterford, OH
American Electric Power
Philip Sporn
Fly Ash Pond
New Haven, WV
American Electric Power
Tanners Creek
Fly Ash Pond
Lawrenceburg, IN
Arizona Electric Pwr Coop Inc
Apache Station Combustion Waste Disposal Facility
Ash Pond 4
Cochise, AZ
Arizona Electric Pwr Coop Inc
Apache Station Combustion Waste Disposal Facility
Ash Pond 1
Cochise, AZ
Arizona Electric Pwr Coop Inc
Apache Station Combustion Waste Disposal Facility
Ash Pond 3
Cochise, AZ
Arizona Electric Pwr Coop Inc
Apache Station Combustion Waste Disposal Facility
Scrubber Pond 2
Cochise, AZ
Arizona Electric Pwr Coop Inc
Apache Station Combustion Waste Disposal Facility
Scrubber Pond 1
Cochise, AZ
Arizona Electric Pwr Coop Inc
Apache Station Combustion Waste Disposal Facility
Evaporation 1
Cochise, AZ
Arizona Electric Pwr Coop Inc
Apache Station Combustion Waste Disposal Facility
Ash Pond 2
Cochise, AZ
Arizona Public Service Co
Cholla
Bottom Ash Pond
Joseph City AZ
Arizona Public Service Co
Cholla
Fly Ash Pond
Joseph City AZ
Duke Energy Corp
Allen Steam Plant
Active Ash Pond
Belmont, NC
Duke Energy Corp
Belews Creek Steam Station
Active Ash Pond
Walnut Cove, NC
Duke Energy Corp
Buck
New Primary Pond
Spencer, NC
Duke Energy Corp
Buck
Secondary Pond
Spencer, NC
Duke Energy Corp
Buck
Primary Pond
Spencer, NC
Duke Energy Corp
Dan River
Secondary Pond
Eden, NC
Duke Energy Corp
Dan River
Primary Pond
Eden, NC
Duke Energy Corp
Marshall Steam Station
Active Ash Pond
Terrell, NC
Duke Energy Corp
Riverbend
Secondary Pond
Mount Holly, NC
Duke Energy Corp
Riverbend
Primary Pond
Mount Holly, NC
Dynegy Midwest Generation Inc
Havana
East Ash Pond
Havana, IL
Dynegy Midwest Generation Inc
Wood River
East Ash Pond (2 cells)
Alton, IL
First Energy Generation Corp
Bruce Mansfield
Little Blue Run Dam
Shippingport, PA
Georgia Power
Plant Branch
E
Milledgeville,GA
Kentucky Utilities Co
E W Brown
Auxiliary Pond
Harrodsburg, KY
Kentucky Utilities Co
E W Brown
Ash Pond
Harrodsburg, KY
Kentucky Utilities Co
Ghent
Gypsum Stacking Facility
Ghent, KY
Kentucky Utilities Co
Ghent
Ash Pond Basin 1
Ghent, KY
Kentucky Utilities Co
Ghent
Ash Pond Basin 2
Ghent, KY
Louisville Gas & Electric Co
Cane Run
Ash Pond
Louisville, KY
PPL Montana LLC
Colstrip Steam Electric Station
Units 1 & 2 Stage Evaporation Ponds (STEP)
Colstrip, MT
Progress Energy Carolinas Inc
Asheville
1982 Pond
Arden, NC
Progress Energy Carolinas Inc
Asheville
1964 Pond
Arden, NC
 
Congress initially raised the prospect of regulating coal ash as a hazardous waste in 1980, but regulators moved slowly until March 2000, when the Environmental Protection Agency said it planned to designate it a “contingent hazardous waste.” After electric utilities protested that such a move would cost too much, then-EPA administrator Carol M. Browner reversed herself and determined that coal ash amounted to a solid waste. The agency pledged to issue regulations on the matter but failed to do so. Enforceable federal standards are not in place. The question remains “what to do?”


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