New rules for regulating coal ash?
May 11, 2010
After months of suspense, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has finally released its proposed new rule for regulating coal ash, the waste material left after coal combustion. But instead of proposing a clear policy, the EPA has laid out two distinct options.
One would require the states to adhere to strict federal regulations for disposal of coal ash. Among other things, it would phase out the disposal of coal ash in ponds and other wet disposal methods.
The second option would allow the states to opt out of federal regulations, placing the burden on citizens to press for protection from coal ash -- after it had been dumped.
Coal ash commonly contains a host of hazardous constituents, including aluminum, antimony, arsenic, barium, beryllium, boron, cadmium, chromium, copper, lead, manganese, mercury, molybdenum, nickel, selenium, strontium, thallium, vanadium, and/or zinc.
Leaching toxic substances
When coal ash is exposed to water, these toxic substances can leach out of the coal ash and into surface water, groundwater and drinking supplies, potentially causing cancer, heart damage, respiratory problems, gastrointestinal effects, nervous system problems, birth defects, decreases in IQ, and other serious health effects.
Despite the danger, disposal of coal ash has not to date been regulated by the federal government. Instead, a patchwork of state regulations governs coal ash handling.
Among the disposal scenarios currently permitted, some states allow coal ash to be stored as slurry in open waste pits, or used to fill old mining sites and quarries, or spread on snowy roads in winter.
Hundreds of coal ash storage units dot the United States. Many of them leach toxic materials into drinking supplies, rivers and streams. Ash ponds – perhaps better called “lakes” – have been known to burst their retaining walls.
In late 2008, a billion (that’s a b) gallons of coal ash burst through a dam near a Tennessee Valley Authority power plant in Kingston, Tennessee, flooding 300 acres of a nearby valley and river with toxic sludge.
Time to speak out
When EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson introduced the proposed rule earlier this month, she called it “the beginning of a national dialogue.” The EPA will receive public comments on the two options, and apparently will lean heavily on the comments it receives in deciding which version of the rule to adopt.
This places great responsibility on PSR, as a leading voice of the medical and public health community, to speak up.
Over the coming weeks, we will be calling on our members to submit comments on the health implications of coal ash. As soon as the dates for the public comments period are announced, I’ll be back to you with detailed informational resources and details on how to speak out for health.