Coal-Ash Disposal Remains A Front-Burner Issue at EPA

November 11, 2009

Most of the 580-plus coal-ash impoundments and landfills in the U.S. would make a good local environmental story, and the information available on them is growing.

Since last December's major coal ash spill near Knoxville, TN, the federal government has been scrutinizing how surface impoundments of coal ash are regulated. Two new government reports shed more light on this issue.

Among GAO's major findings:

  • EPA is analyzing the structural hazards and environmental risks associated with surface impoundments. EPA identified 49 coal ash surface impoundments with "high hazard" potential rating (referring to the potential for damage/deaths if they fail, not to their current condition or likelihood of failure). So far, EPA has surveyed 38 of these facilities. On Sept. 14 EPA released reports on the first 22 of these. 
  • EPA doesn't know exactly how many surface impoundments and landfills exist at utility coal fired power plants. However, they're busily counting and mapping them — over 580 as of Sept. 14, 2009
  • EPA does not directly regulate the structural integrity of coal ash disposal in surface impoundments or landfills. States have a variety of regulatory controls on surface impoundments. EPA is expected to propose new rules in December 2009, but state-federal power struggles will likely complicate this issue.

Meanwhile, on Nov. 2, EPA's Office of Inspector General reported that they found "no evidence of criminal activity or improper actions involving a cover-up in the risk assessment process for coal ash rulemaking," and "no evidence of any undue outside influence affecting the rulemaking process." EPA OIG: 202-566-2391.

This investigation was prompted in August 2009 by allegations raised in a 60 Minutes interview. That 60 Minutes segment, "Coal Ash: 130 Million Tons of Waste," aired Oct. 6, 2009.