coal ash

EPA Coal Ash Regulations Take Effect Today, But Battle Continues

United Mountain Defense

By Rhiannon Fionn

Until the Tennessee Valley Authority’s coal ash disaster shoved homes from their foundations in the middle of the night in Dec. 2008, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, bending to pressure from industry, allowed coal plants to self monitor coal ash waste. But once the glare of the national spotlight called that conflict into question, newly appointed EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson vowed to put a coal ash regulation in place by the end of 2009.

Nearly seven years after the spill in Kingston, Tenn., that long-awaited regulation becomes effective today, Oct. 19.

North Carolina Settles With Duke Energy Over Coal Ash Groundwater Contamination, Ratepayers May Shoulder Costs

Rhiannon Fionn

This is a guest post by Rhiannon Fionn, an independent investigative journalist and filmmaker in post-production on the documentary film “Coal Ash Chronicles.” 

North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality today announced a settlement agreement with Duke Energy, ending a lawsuit over the department’s $25.1 million fine for groundwater contamination resulting from coal ash stored at the company’s Sutton plant near Wilmington, N.C. Although the settlement covers groundwater contamination at 14 of Duke’s coal ash facilities and requires accelerated cleanup of groundwater contamination at four sites, activists and residents I spoke with today were not impressed by the announcement.

Since a judge approved the settlement, there will be no opportunity for public comment.

I am again disappointed with the department, but not terribly surprised,” said Catawba Riverkeeper Sam Perkins. “This is an impressive new low,” he added. “They put a proposed fine out there, but they’ve not only reduced it, they diluted it to 14 sites.”

Coal Ash Coming To Groundwater Supplies Near You! Thank Your Congress

Congress adjourned at the end of this week for their annual August vacation, and as usual, they used this last week of July to push their most extreme anti-environment legislation.

One of the main goals of the industry-funded House of Representatives is to loosen coal ash rules before they go into effect in October, and that’s exactly what the House did last week.

Coal Funded Congressman Takes Lead In Dismantling Coal Ash Safety Standards

In December 2014, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released long-awaited coal ash safety standards designed to increase the reliability of coal ash disposal sites. These standards had been years in the making, but stopped short of classifying coal ash as a hazardous waste material, which many advocates had been hoping for.

The new standards enacted by the EPA require stricter structural integrity standards for new coal ash disposal sites, and mandate that the ash ponds not be located near sensitive environmental areas such as wetlands or near fault lines. They also ramped up the inspection and compliance standards for existing disposal sites. The new standards also require coal companies to publicly disclose disposal operations.

While all of these new requirements are fairly common sense steps, coal industry-funded politicians in Washington are not happy, and one month after announcing the new standards, they began launching their attack to undo them.

Leading the charge is Republican Representative David McKinley from West Virginia. McKinley sponsored legislation earlier this year that would strip the public disclosure portion of the rules and allow states to take over the permitting process for coal ash disposal site construction, effectively pushing the EPA out of the way.

The Coal Industry Owns The Courts (VIDEO)

In early February 2014, Duke Energy reported that a coal ash storage site along the Dan River had crumbled, releasing more than 39,000 tons of toxic coal ash into the waterway. This was not the first time that Duke had been responsible for a massive coal ash spill, and most likely not the last.

In public, the company claimed that it is making all the necessary moves to clean up the mess and prevent future disasters. But behind closed doors, the company was hard at work making sure that its negligence would never hinder its profits. Duke Energy had been paying off the right people to prevent any meaningful form of punishment.

The post-Citizens United world has led to an enormous increase in the amount of money flowing to judicial elections, which was previously an area that very few corporations gave a second look. But with a green light to throw cash around now, they’ve realized that owning the Judicial Branch of American government is just as lucrative as owning a politician.

During the 2014 midterm elections, the state of North Carolina — Duke Energy’s base of operations — became a hotbed for judicial campaign spending. In total, an unprecedented $800,000 was spent on judicial elections by a group called Justice For All NC, with more than $300,000 of that total coming solely from Duke Energy.

A recent report by the Center for American Progress (CAP) shows that elected judges are far more likely to vote in favor of corporations (those who funded their elections) than non-elected judges, explaining Duke Energy’s desire to pump hundreds of thousands of dollars into this campaign.

New EPA Coal Ash Regulations Are Not Enough To Stop The Next Coal Ash Spill

The Environmental Protection Agency released long-awaited coal ash regulations today, the first rules ever to be imposed on the storage and disposal of the toxic waste left over after burning coal for electricity—the second largest industrial waste stream in the U.S.

But according to Earthjustice and the 10 environmental and public interest groups it represented in suing to force the release of the regulations in the first place, the EPA’s new rules are not nearly stringent enough to stop the next coal ash spill before it happens.

The new rules will not phase out the practice of storing massive quantities of coal ash—which contains highly toxic substances like arsenic, mercury, lead and radioactive uranium—in unlined ponds shored up by earthen dams that are often unstable and likely to fail. This is exactly what happened in the case of the Dan River coal ash spill in North Carolina this past February and the spill in Kingston, Tennessee in 2008 that released 1.1 billion gallons of coal fly ash slurry, covering up to 300 acres of surrounding land.

The typical coal ash dam is built from soil and ash and is used to impound millions of tons of coal ash and wastewater. The majority are over 40 years old, according to Earthjustice, and most do not have monitoring systems in place for detecting leaks of the toxic coal ash slurry they contain.

New Short Film Exposes The Human Cost Of Coal Ash Dumping

The threats posed by coal ash are well known today, but not too long ago, the dangers of coal ash disposal were a dirty energy secret.

For a large section of residents in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, the dangers of coal ash were kept a secret, and in their place the dirty energy industry fed them promises of a luscious, green and blue landscape that they could enjoy with their families. All they had to do was sign off on a coal ash dump in their area.

The energy company was First Energy, and a new short film by EarthJustice exposes the lies and the resulting impacts that their coal ash dump had on local communities.

The whole film, titled “Little Blue: A Broken Promise,” can be viewed here:

Industry Funded Politicians Hope To Thwart Pollution Penalties In North Carolina

On March 6th of this year, North Carolina Superior Court Judge Paul Ridgeway handed down a ruling that Duke Energy must immediately prevent toxins from their coal ash ponds from leaking into the water supply, and also that the energy giant had to develop a plan to clean up all of the groundwater that they had contaminated in the state.  Ridgeway said that the state and the energy company had been misinterpreting a state law for decades in order to avoid cleaning up their toxic mess.

Judge Ridgeway’s ruling gave the North Carolina Environmental Management Commission (EMC) the authority to hold Duke accountable for years of pollution.  And just when it looked like Duke Energy might finally have to pay for their environmental crimes, something magical happened for the dirty energy company:  The EMC appealed Ridgeway’s ruling.

Rather than doing the job they were ordered to do by a judge, the state agency sided with Duke Energy in appealing the ruling, claiming that the state’s environmental laws do not give the agency the authority to order a cleanup of contaminated water supplies.

The EMC isn’t reacting this way because they are too busy, or because they don’t have the resources to enforce the cleanup – they joined the appeal because Duke Energy owns the state government in North Carolina.

The EMC claims to operate independently from the influence of state government, but they are directly appointed by the government.  The board consists of 15 members appointed by Republican Governor Pat McCrory (8 appointments to the board), Republican House Speaker Thom Tillis, and Republican Senate leader Phil Berger (7 collective appointments to the board.)  The common thread among these politicians is that their campaigns were all funded by Duke Energy and a host of other dirty energy heavyweights.

Duke Energy Spills Thousands Of Tons Of Coal Ash Into North Carolina River

Residents in the city of Eden, North Carolina are currently in danger of having their drinking water destroyed thanks to Duke Energy.  The coal giant has reported a coal ash spill in the Dan River with as much as 82,000 tons of the toxic pollutant released into the waterway.

According to EcoWatch, it took an astounding 24 hours after the accident occurred for Duke to issue a press release to inform the public about the chemicals that were very quickly making their way down river.  It is currently estimated that 22 million gallons of coal ash are now flowing along the river.  The spill has already been declared the third largest in U.S. history.

This was not an unavoidable catastrophe.

Duke was warned by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in September 2009 that the coal ash storage site was falling apart, and the EPA even noted several instances of coal ash sludge already leaking from corroded pipes.  The EPA report also noted that portions of the dam that were supposed to be keeping the coal ash in its retention pond were crumbling.

The coal ash spill is the second major environmental chemical spill in less than a month, following the West Virginia chemical spill in early January.

Despite Flaws, Pennsylvania Regulators Fast Track FirstEnergy Coal Ash Disposal Plans

Across the U.S., the shale rush has unleashed a frenzy of excitement about domestic energy supplies.

But the oil and gas produced from fracking comes along with billions of gallons of wastewater and tons of mud and rock that carry radioactive materials and heavy metals.

As problems with disposal mount, the industry has offered mostly vague promises of “recycling” to describe how the waste will be handled over the long run.

As the nation gears up to produce vast amounts of shale oil and gas — and the toxic waste that comes along with it — it’s worth taking a look back at the failures of another industry to handle its toxic waste responsibly — the coal industry. 

Communities across America are still struggling to resolve problems left behind decades ago from coal mining and related industrial pollution.

These aren’t merely yesterday’s problems – the ash from burning coal at coal-fired power plants remains the single largest wastestream in the U.S.


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