Video: Senate hearing over Tenn. spill

updated 1/9/2009 5:11:32 PM ET 2009-01-09T22:11:32

A retention pond at a Tennessee Valley Authority coal-burning power plant leaked waste into a northeast Alabama creek Friday, putting more pressure on utility officials who are already trying to clean up a major coal ash spill from last month in Tennessee.

Workers at the Widows Creek Fossil Plant discovered the leak at the 147-acre retaining pond at about 6 a.m., officials said. By the time the discharge was stopped a few hours later, the spill had run into an adjacent pond and then overflowed into Widows Creek. A leaky pipe was likely to blame, the TVA said.

"Some did get into the creek. How much I don't know," TVA spokesman Gil Francis said. Most of the waste ended up in the second pond, he said.

Alabama emergency management officials were trying to determine if any drinking water systems were affected by the spill into the creek, which flows into the Tennessee River, said Scott Hughes, a spokesman for Alabama Department of Environmental Management.

The spill, about 30 miles southwest of Chattanooga, Tenn., comes after a dike burst at a plant near Kingston, Tenn., on Dec. 22, releasing more than 1 billion gallons of toxic-laden coal ash into a neighborhood. The spill has renewed a debate about whether states or federal regulators should oversee the materials, and at a hearing in Washington this week, Senate Democrats said they want stricter rules for toxic ash from coal-fired power plants.

The TVA, which is the nation's largest public utility and serves 9 million customers in seven states, has similar ponds in several locations. An Associated Press analysis of Energy Department data found that nationwide, 156 coal-fired power plants store ash in surface ponds similar to one that ruptured last month in Tennessee.

The federal utility said the pond that leaked Friday contained gypsum, a material that is captured in air pollution control devices at the plant. Gypsum is a naturally occurring mineral that contains calcium sulfate, which is used to make drywall, cement and fertilizer.

"It's in wallboard, like in your house," Francis said.

The spill occurred near the part of the Tennessee River that provides drinking water for the city of Stevenson.

Brent Blackmon, manager of Stevenson Utilities, which provides water to about 1,600 customers, said water samples were being taken from the river Friday afternoon and sent to a private laboratory in Tuscaloosa for testing.

"It's just a standard test to determine if there's anything that would contaminate our drinking water," Blackmon said. He said he's optimistic from the information he's received that the substances that went into the creek were not toxic. He said results from the lab are expected Monday afternoon.

The Alabama pond held a different kind of waste than what was contained in the Tennessee pond. The Kingston plant spill was wet fly ash, which contain heavy materials, including arsenic.

In 2005, the utility reported depositing 445,200 tons of gypsum in ponds at the Widows Creek plant. The Widows Creek plant also has fly ash ponds that are the largest in Alabama, according to EPA data.

Waste piling up nationwide
While TVA is the largest public utility in the country, it is hardly the only one that deals with waste ponds.

Millions of tons of toxic coal ash is piling up in power plant ponds in 32 states, a practice the federal government has long recognized as a risk to human health and the environment but has left unregulated.

An Associated Press analysis of the most recent Energy Department data found that 156 coal-fired power plants store ash in surface ponds.

Records indicate that states storing the most coal ash in ponds are Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, Georgia and Alabama.

The man-made lagoons hold a mixture of the noncombustible ingredients of coal and the ash trapped by equipment designed to reduce air pollution from the power plants.

Over the years, the volume of waste has grown as demand for electricity increased and the federal government clamped down on emissions from power plants.

The AP's analysis found that in 2005, the most recent year data is available, 721 power plants generating at least 100 megawatts of electricity produced 95.8 million tons of coal ash. About 20 percent — or nearly 20 million tons — ended up in surface ponds. The remainder ends up in landfills, or is sold for use in concrete, among other uses.

The Environmental Protection Agency eight years ago said it wanted to set a national standard for ponds or landfills used to dispose of wastes produced from burning coal.

The agency has yet to act.

Household trash more regulated
As a result, coal ash ponds are subject to less regulation than landfills accepting household trash. The EPA estimates that about 300 ponds for coal ash exist nationwide. And the power industry estimates that the ponds contain tens of thousands of pounds of toxic heavy metals.

Without federal guidelines, regulations of the ash ponds vary by state. Most lack liners and have no monitors to ensure that ash and its contents don't seep into underground aquifers.

"There has been zero done by the EPA," said Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W. Va., chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee. Rahall pushed through legislation in 1980 directing the EPA to study how wastes generated at the nation's coal-fired power plants should be treated under federal law.

In both 1988 and 1993, the EPA decided that coal ash should not be regulated as a hazardous waste. The agency has declined to take other steps to control how it is stored or used.

Rahall plans to introduce legislation this Congress to compel the EPA to act. "Coal ash impoundments like the one in Tennessee have to be subject to federal regulations to ensure a basic level of safety for communities," Rahall said.

At a hearing held Thursday on the Tennessee spill, Senate Democrats called for stricter regulations.

"The federal government has the power to regulate these wastes, and inaction has allowed this enormous volume of toxic material to go largely unregulated," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who chairs Senate committee that oversees the EPA.

EPA: Other issues more pressing
The agency says it is working toward a national standard and that there has been no "conscious or clear slowdown" by Bush administration officials who have run the agency since 2001 and often sided with the energy industry on environmental controls.

"It has been an issue of resources and a range of pressing things we are working on," said Matthew Hale, who heads the agency's Office of Solid Waste.

Over the years, the government has found increasing evidence that coal ash ponds and landfills taint the environment and pose risks to humans and wildlife. In 2000, when the EPA first floated the idea of a national standard, the agency knew of 11 cases of water pollution linked to ash ponds or landfills. In 2007, that list grew to 24 cases in 13 states with another 43 cases where coal ash was the likely cause of pollution.

The leaks and spills are blamed for abnormalities in tadpoles. The heads and fins of certain fish species were deformed after exposure to the chemicals. In 2006, the EPA concluded that disposal of coal waste in ponds elevates cancer risk when metals leach into drinking water sources.

Among the facilities listed by the EPA as potentially causing environmental damage were three run by the Tennessee Valley Authority, the same utility that operates the pond in Tennessee that failed last month.

Hale said the national standard would require monitoring for leaks at older, unlined sites and require the company to respond when they occur.

Utilities: Federal rules not needed
The industry already runs a voluntary program encouraging energy companies to install groundwater monitors. Industry officials argue that a federal regulation will do little to prevent pollution at older dump sites.

"Having federal regulations isn't going to solve those problems," said Jim Roewer, executive director of the Utility Solid Waste Activity Group, a consortium of electricity producers based in Washington. "What you have to look at is what the current state regulatory programs are. The state programs continue to evolve."

Despite improvements in state programs, many states have little regulation other than requiring permits for discharging into waterways — as required by the federal Clean Water Act.

In North Carolina, where 14 power plants disposed of 1.3 million tons in ponds in 2005, state officials do not require operators to line their ponds or monitor groundwater, safety measures that help protect water supplies from contamination.

Similar safety measures are not required in Kentucky, Alabama, and Indiana.

And while other states like Ohio have regulations to protect groundwater, those often don't apply to many of the older dumps built before the state rules were imposed.

Government enforcement has been spotty, leaving citizens who suffered from the contamination to file lawsuits against power companies.

$25 million settlement in Montana
In May, the owners of a Montana power plant — storing more ash in ponds than any other facility in the country — agreed to pay $25 million to settle a lawsuit filed by 57 plant workers and nearby residents. The plant's ponds were blamed for contaminating water supplies in subdivisions and a trailer park.

Many of the ponds at the Colstrip, Mont., plant were in place before regulation. State environmental officials say the operator, PPL Montana, is working to fix leaks.

Just last week, a judge in Baltimore approved a $54 million lawsuit settlement against a subsidiary of Constellation Energy. The company was accused of tainting water supplies with coal ash it dumped into a sand and gravel quarry.

Neither of these made the EPA's 2007 list of 67 cases of known or possible contamination stemming from power plant landfills or holding ponds.

"The solution is readily available to the EPA," said Lisa Evans, an attorney for Earthjustice, an environmental advocacy group. "We wouldn't like it, but they could say that municipal solid waste rules apply to coal ash. They could have done that, but instead they chose to do absolutely nothing."

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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