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Coal-ash waste poses risk across the nation

13 01 09 - 06:42 Coal-ash waste poses risk across the nation



By Mark Clayton


The billion-gallon wave of toxic coal-ash sludge that burst from a power-plant retention pond and buried 300 acres of rural Tennessee hints at a far larger problem: hundreds of similar threats nationwide.

More than 1,300 coal-ash waste sites are dotted across the United States, about half of them actively used, federal data show. Some are landfills. The rest are "surface impoundments" (storage lagoons), which, like the one in Tennessee, mix ash with water.

Coal ash has some beneficial uses. It can be mixed with concrete to make roads, for example. But storing coal ash in a retention pond - common at coal-fired power plants nationwide - can be a threat to the environment and humans as well: The ash contains many toxic metals, including arsenic, lead, and chromium.

At least 67 coal-ash sites have been found to be damaging drinking-water supplies in communities across 23 states, the US Environmental Protection Agency reported last year. But those EPA-identified sites grossly understate the threat, environmentalists say.

EPA study finds only 13 'safe' coal-ash waste dumps

Among an additional 155 landfill and surface-impoundment sites in 36 states reviewed by the EPA in 2007, all but 13 had no liner or an inadequate clay liner. Most - two-thirds of them - had no liner at all. An impermeable liner is needed to keep toxic metals from leaching from the ash into groundwater supplies.

This concerns Kevin Madonna, who, with his law-firm partner, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., keeps a close eye on water pollution issues. Using last year’s EPA data, Mr. Madonna cross-checked coal-ash lagoons and landfills that had either a clay liner or no liner to see which ones were close to human populations and waterways.

One-third are close to human populations

Of the 155 waste sites, more than one-third were close or very close to significant human populations; two-thirds were near or very near key waterways, Madonna found. About half of the sites were coal-ash surface impoundments (lagoons).

"You have toxic wastes leaking into water bodies from probably every single one of these lagoons," Madonna says. "It's a huge mess."

Little is known about coal-ash storage sites, which are lightly regulated by states and exempt from federal hazardous-waste regulations. Many are decades old, which increases the potential for leakage and containment failure, experts and environmentalists say.

Lisa Evans, an attorney for Earthjustice, an environmental group, says the EPA underestimates the problem. "Most impoundments are not monitored at all," she says. "The list of sites identified by the EPA in 2007 is far from comprehensive."

Needed: impermeable liners for waste sites

An earlier EPA report to Congress in 1999 showed that about three-quarters of some 300 active surface impoundment sites were unlined, Ms. Evans says. Of those that were lined, most were probably lined with clay, which is an inadequate barrier to toxic metals and invites contamination oflocal ground water, says Charles Norris. Mr. Norris is head of Geo-Hydro Inc., a Denver-based consulting company that has analyzed the hydrogeology of such structures. An impermeable composite (plastic) liner is what’s required, he and others say.

The problem is perhaps most acute among nearly 100 coal-ash storage lagoons in two dozen states across the country. Many of these ponds are far larger and far more toxic than the one that burst at the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston power plant at Harriman, Tenn., on Dec. 22.

That assertion is based on data released Jan. 7 by the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP), a Washington-based watchdog group. Their analysis of EPA data showed volumes of heavy metals that were larger than those at Kingston being deposited at other power-plant waste sites.

Aresnic, lead pose threat to well water

Arsenic levels in waterways near the Kingston spill were far above safe drinking water standards, according to EPA samples taken after the accident. Such toxins can be removed at water treatment facilities, but pose a threat to drinking water wells,

Some power-plant surface impoundments are 1,500 acres in area and contain perhaps 55 million cubic yards of material. That's several times the size of the Kingston facility.

Environmentalists say Tennessee a warning sign

"Our analysis confirms that this problem is truly national in scope and that Tennessee may end up only being a warning sign of much more trouble to come," EIP director Eric Schaeffer said in a statement. He also warned of what he called "inadequate oversight and monitoring of land-based disposal and other 'storage' of these toxic wastes."

Just ask Jan Nona, a retired secretary who lives in the little town of Michigan City, Ind., two miles from a coal-ash landfill that has grown to be several city blocks long, several blocks wide, and a few stories tall. Only part of the landfill is lined, so toxins like boron have leached into the city ground water.

"I used to have a well with sweet water - until the boron level got too high," she says. "Me and my neighbors have had to give up our wells now that they have boron, manganese, molybdenum, and other things in them. We've got test results that boggle the mind."

Sturdiness of impoundment dams an issue

Others are more concerned about a catastrophic release. In the past eight years, two other big dam breaks have occurred in coal-ash impoundments, one in Georgia and one more recently in Pennsylvania on the Delaware River. Both spills killed river life for miles and cost tens of millions of dollars to clean up.

Just how sturdy are the hundreds of dams holding back hundreds of millions of cubic yards of coal-ash slurry? Many of these dams are made of compacted coal ash, as was the case at the TVA facility, rather than of compacted earth, which is more stable.

But "coal ash is not in equilibrium with the environment," Geo-Hydro's Mr. Norris says. "It reacts quite strongly with any water that comes in contact with it. I've read the inspection reports from the TVA facility. It's pretty clear this is material that is internally degrading." (On January 9, a second spill of waste from a TVA coal-fired power plant came at its Widows Creek facility in northeast Alabama. This time it was not coal ash escaping, TVA officials said, but about 10,000 gallons of gypsum from a cooling-system pond, the Knoxville News Sentinel reported.)

Averting the problem might have cost one-tenth as much as cleanup

At the Kingston facility, TVA officials did not pursue a $25 million proposal to dry out the sludge and ship it to a properly lined landfill, despite evidence that the lagoon dam was weakening, according to published reports. Instead they turned to less-costly alternatives. Would tighter regulation have helped?

Maybe. But in the 28 years since Congress enacted 1980's Solid Waste Disposal Act and required the EPA to report back on whether to regulate coal combustion waste (CCW), EPA attempts to regulate the material have fallen before vigorous utility industry lobbying, lawyer Evans says.

In 2000, for instance, the EPA determined that CCW did not warrant regulation as hazardous waste. It subsequently cut most funding to develop national regulations and instead began drawing up voluntary guidelines, Evans says.

Since then, however, the EPA has "collected significant new data and new analyses," says Matthew Hale, director of EPA's Office of Solid Waste, in a statement responding to Monitor queries. EPA is now analyzing data gathered in its 2007 study, he said, "and will consider this information as we continue to follow up on the regulatory determination on the management of coal combustion waste."

Utility group says better state regulations will suffice

A utility industry spokesman says it has been joined by many others, including states, to lobby against federal hazardous waste regulation. State regulation is working, despite the Kingston collapse, according to Jim Roewer, executive director of the Utility Solid Waste Activities Group, an industry trade association. "A lot of people are claiming that if coal ash is not regulated as a hazardous waste at the federal level, then it's not regulated," he says. "States do have programs, and they aren't static and have become more stringent over time.... Tennessee and other states will be reviewing their programs" in light of this spill.

Priorities for solving the problem are clear, environmentalists say

But environmentalists say the solution is obvious: Phase out all wet storage of toxic coal ash; immediately inspect and begin monitoring coal-ash storage and disposal units; begin federal regulation of all coal-ash storage and disposal by year's end.

This daunting problem may be solved by putting coal ash in dry, specially-lined landfills to keep water out. Cleaning up the Kingston spill will cost 10 times what it would have cost to dry and ship the ash to a proper landfill, Evans says. "It's a problem that has a clear solution," she says. "We just need to decide to do it." At least 67 coal-ash sites have been found to be damaging drinking-water supplies in communities across 23 states, the US Environmental Protection Agency reported last year. But those EPA-identified sites grossly understate the threat, environmentalists say.

EPA study finds only 13 'safe' coal-ash waste dumps

Among an additional 155 landfill and surface-impoundment sites in 36 states reviewed by the EPA in 2007, all but 13 had no liner or an inadequate clay liner. Most - two-thirds of them - had no liner at all. An impermeable liner is needed to keep toxic metals from leaching from the ash into groundwater supplies.

This concerns Kevin Madonna, who, with his law-firm partner, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., keeps a close eye on water pollution issues. Using last year’s EPA data, Mr. Madonna cross-checked coal-ash lagoons and landfills that had either a clay liner or no liner to see which ones were close to human populations and waterways.

One-third are close to human populations

Of the 155 waste sites, more than one-third were close or very close to significant human populations; two-thirds were near or very near key waterways, Madonna found. About half of the sites were coal-ash surface impoundments (lagoons).

"You have toxic wastes leaking into water bodies from probably every single one of these lagoons," Madonna says. "It's a huge mess."

Little is known about coal-ash storage sites, which are lightly regulated by states and exempt from federal hazardous-waste regulations. Many are decades old, which increases the potential for leakage and containment failure, experts and environmentalists say.

Lisa Evans, an attorney for Earthjustice, an environmental group, says the EPA underestimates the problem. "Most impoundments are not monitored at all," she says. "The list of sites identified by the EPA in 2007 is far from comprehensive."

Needed: impermeable liners for waste sites

An earlier EPA report to Congress in 1999 showed that about three-quarters of some 300 active surface impoundment sites were unlined, Ms. Evans says. Of those that were lined, most were probably lined with clay, which is an inadequate barrier to toxic metals and invites contamination oflocal ground water, says Charles Norris. Mr. Norris is head of Geo-Hydro Inc., a Denver-based consulting company that has analyzed the hydrogeology of such structures. An impermeable composite (plastic) liner is what’s required, he and others say.

The problem is perhaps most acute among nearly 100 coal-ash storage lagoons in two dozen states across the country. Many of these ponds are far larger and far more toxic than the one that burst at the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston power plant at Harriman, Tenn., on Dec. 22.

That assertion is based on data released Jan. 7 by the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP), a Washington-based watchdog group. Their analysis of EPA data showed volumes of heavy metals that were larger than those at Kingston being deposited at other power-plant waste sites.

Aresnic, lead pose threat to well water

Arsenic levels in waterways near the Kingston spill were far above safe drinking water standards, according to EPA samples taken after the accident. Such toxins can be removed at water treatment facilities, but pose a threat to drinking water wells,

Some power-plant surface impoundments are 1,500 acres in area and contain perhaps 55 million cubic yards of material. That's several times the size of the Kingston facility.

Environmentalists say Tennessee a warning sign

"Our analysis confirms that this problem is truly national in scope and that Tennessee may end up only being a warning sign of much more trouble to come," EIP director Eric Schaeffer said in a statement. He also warned of what he called "inadequate oversight and monitoring of land-based disposal and other 'storage' of these toxic wastes."

Just ask Jan Nona, a retired secretary who lives in the little town of Michigan City, Ind., two miles from a coal-ash landfill that has grown to be several city blocks long, several blocks wide, and a few stories tall. Only part of the landfill is lined, so toxins like boron have leached into the city ground water.

"I used to have a well with sweet water - until the boron level got too high," she says. "Me and my neighbors have had to give up our wells now that they have boron, manganese, molybdenum, and other things in them. We've got test results that boggle the mind."

Sturdiness of impoundment dams an issue

Others are more concerned about a catastrophic release. In the past eight years, two other big dam breaks have occurred in coal-ash impoundments, one in Georgia and one more recently in Pennsylvania on the Delaware River. Both spills killed river life for miles and cost tens of millions of dollars to clean up.

Just how sturdy are the hundreds of dams holding back hundreds of millions of cubic yards of coal-ash slurry? Many of these dams are made of compacted coal ash, as was the case at the TVA facility, rather than of compacted earth, which is more stable.

But "coal ash is not in equilibrium with the environment," Geo-Hydro's Mr. Norris says. "It reacts quite strongly with any water that comes in contact with it. I've read the inspection reports from the TVA facility. It's pretty clear this is material that is internally degrading." (On January 9, a second spill of waste from a TVA coal-fired power plant came at its Widows Creek facility in northeast Alabama. This time it was not coal ash escaping, TVA officials said, but about 10,000 gallons of gypsum from a cooling-system pond, the Knoxville News Sentinel reported.)

Averting the problem might have cost one-tenth as much as cleanup

At the Kingston facility, TVA officials did not pursue a $25 million proposal to dry out the sludge and ship it to a properly lined landfill, despite evidence that the lagoon dam was weakening, according to published reports. Instead they turned to less-costly alternatives. Would tighter regulation have helped?

Maybe. But in the 28 years since Congress enacted 1980's Solid Waste Disposal Act and required the EPA to report back on whether to regulate coal combustion waste (CCW), EPA attempts to regulate the material have fallen before vigorous utility industry lobbying, lawyer Evans says.

In 2000, for instance, the EPA determined that CCW did not warrant regulation as hazardous waste. It subsequently cut most funding to develop national regulations and instead began drawing up voluntary guidelines, Evans says.

Since then, however, the EPA has "collected significant new data and new analyses," says Matthew Hale, director of EPA's Office of Solid Waste, in a statement responding to Monitor queries. EPA is now analyzing data gathered in its 2007 study, he said, "and will consider this information as we continue to follow up on the regulatory determination on the management of coal combustion waste."

Utility group says better state regulations will suffice

A utility industry spokesman says it has been joined by many others, including states, to lobby against federal hazardous waste regulation. State regulation is working, despite the Kingston collapse, according to Jim Roewer, executive director of the Utility Solid Waste Activities Group, an industry trade association. "A lot of people are claiming that if coal ash is not regulated as a hazardous waste at the federal level, then it's not regulated," he says. "States do have programs, and they aren't static and have become more stringent over time.... Tennessee and other states will be reviewing their programs" in light of this spill.

Priorities for solving the problem are clear, environmentalists say

But environmentalists say the solution is obvious: Phase out all wet storage of toxic coal ash; immediately inspect and begin monitoring coal-ash storage and disposal units; begin federal regulation of all coal-ash storage and disposal by year's end.

This daunting problem may be solved by putting coal ash in dry, specially-lined landfills to keep water out. Cleaning up the Kingston spill will cost 10 times what it would have cost to dry and ship the ash to a proper landfill, Evans says. "It's a problem that has a clear solution," she says. "We just need to decide to do it." Used tags: , , , , ,
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Raging wildfires: Climate changes to blame for record season?

Saturday 16 July 2011 at 06:07 am Raging wildfires: Climate changes to blame for record season?


By Pete Spotts


The images are stark: soot-grimed firefighters steering bulldozers or wielding shovels to clear underbrush; curtains of orange flame tracing the contours of summits; aircraft dumping chemicals to slow a fire's progress.

Between Jan. 1 and early July of 2011, slightly more than 38,000 wildfires charred the landscape in the United States at a record pace. So far this year, wildfires have consumed just under 4.9 million acres of forest and grassland, a cumulative expanse the size of New Jersey.

That's 1 million more acres than fires consumed during the same period in 2006, which saw a record 9.9 million acres burned for the entire year.

Beyond the numbers, this year's fires may provide the first large-scale tests of the effectiveness of projects undertaken over the past decade to help forests survive wildfires, several specialists say.

The West's forests are adapted to deal with certain types of wildfires, researchers note. But since the mid-1980s, they add, some of these forests have experienced an increasing number of fires to which they are not well adapted.

Many researchers trace this shift in part to climate change. more

Hybrid Moves Into Housing

Sunday 22 May 2011 at 01:14 am Hybrid Moves Into Housing


By Brenda Krueger Huffman

(Chicago) – Recycling - Check. Conserving energy - Check. Hybrid car - Next car, check. Hybrid home system - What? Yes, it’s here. Hybrid has seamlessly, successfully moved into housing.

Safety Power, Inc. was initially started to provide homes with back up power. The company quickly grew to include renewable energy options and advising commercial and industrial clients with electrical conservation. Recently the company has come full circle and began marketing a new more capable type of renewable energy system for homes.

The award winning firm was voted one of the “Top 5 Sustainable Product Companies in Illinois” and continues to grow its residential client base in Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin. Safety Power also serves larger firms on the national level.

Robert Brazzale, President of Safety Power, a master electrician turned entrepreneur, began Safety Power in 2007. An avid member of Local First Chicago, Rob believes in assisting sustaining local economies with green collar jobs and belongs to many green orientated groups in Chicago and around the country. more

Are electric car makers missing the trick?

Tuesday 29 March 2011 at 11:12 am Are electric car makers missing the trick?


by Martin Ott

I believe that electric car makers may be driving us all down the road that may result in the same sort of technology failures that we have seen in the past.
I'm not referring to the Sinclair scooter here but cast your mind back to the débâcle of Betamax v VHS home recording systems. The eventual winner was the technically inferior VHS but the battle was not resolved until innumerable consumers had paid out for worthless Betamax systems. Back in the 70's a similar conflict occurred over audio systems when America fell in love with the 8 track tape system that moved magnetic tape in a loop over the player head at a high speed resulting in a better sound. The world market finally dictated that the audio cassette was the way to go but not until millions of consumers had been lumbered with home and in-car systems that went down the technological cul de sac. more

Wind Turbine Manufacturer Acknowledges SGS´s Contribution towards Successful Project Completion

Tuesday 29 March 2011 at 10:57 am by Suresh Varma

The Theni Wind Farm project was developed by CLP India Pvt. Ltd., one of the major wind farm project developers in India. Located in the south western part of Tamilnadu, a southern state of the country, the facility consists of 60 Vestas V82 geared wind turbines. As recognition of its contribution towards the successful execution of this wind power project SGS received Vestas award.

Each turbine at the wind farm has a capacity of 1.65 MW IEC Class IIB machine with a blade diameter of 82 m. After a six-month long completion period, the Theni Wind Farm was officially opened in May, 2010.

Acting as contract engineer during project execution, SGS was responsible for ensuring that all activities were carried out at the site by the contractor in line with the final agreement. In doing so, SGS supervised the quality of construction works, the fulfillment of the technical parameters and kept the project within the scheduled time and contracted price. more

E.ON uses PPC's Broadband Powerline technology in smart grid project

Tuesday 29 March 2011 at 10:37 am E.ON uses PPC's Broadband Powerline technology in smart grid project

by Power Plus Communications

Mannheim - Power Plus Communications AG (PPC), the leading provider of Broadband Powerline Communication systems (BPL) for smart grids has taken on a key role within an E.ON smart grid project to facilitate an extension of Cisco's Connected Grid Solution.

E.ON Westfalen Weser AG is currently trialing smart grid technology within its network of 1.3 million inhabitants and PPC's proven medium voltage BPL solution has connected substations in the project using the existing power grid.

Using BPL technology, standard compliant and IP-based data transfer rates of 5-30 Mbit/s can easily be achieved via the medium voltage cable itself. Within E.ON’s smart grid project, PPC's medium voltage technology facilitated the extension of Cisco's Connected Grid Solution. The Cisco smart grid Router and Switches used in the project are highly compatible with BPL networks, providing a real cost advantage over fiber optic networks – which can be much more expensive where cables are not pre-existing.

By combining their technology at Westfalen Weser, PPC and Cisco have ensured the evolution of fast and efficient smart grids which are controlled on an IP basis. This increases the reliability of the power grid, fulfills regulations and drives down costs. At the same time this modern smart grids communications technology makes it possible to effectively integrate renewable energy into the grid. more

MIT Infrastructure "Life Cycle" Study is Progress Both Left & Right Can Embrace - Part 2, Fiscal Responsibility

Saturday 19 February 2011 at 09:02 am By Brenda Krueger Huffman


Chicago – Perhaps moving to the center is where we all need to be politically on the environment and effective spending compatibility. Not all green technology is crazy, and not all business profit or government expenditure is evil.

Even if you do not believe in man caused climate change, we can all agree leaving a cleaner planet and a more fiscally responsible government for the next generation is preferable to not doing so.

Perhaps green technology can be cost effective, and government fiscal responsibility may realistically include affordable green initiatives. Honest “life cycle analysis” and “life cycle cost analysis” study considerations should be a political compromise starting point both the left and the right can embrace. more

Global warming: Impact of receding snow and ice surprises scientists

Thursday 27 January 2011 at 11:05 am Global warming: Impact of receding snow and ice surprises scientists

By Pete Spotts


Washington - A long-term retreat in snow and ice cover in the Northern Hemisphere is weakening the ability of these seasonal cloaks of white to reflect sunlight back into space and cool global climate, according to a study published this week.

Indeed, over the past 30 years, the cooling effect from this so-called cryosphere – essentially areas covered by snow and ice at least part of the year – appears to have weakened at more than twice the pace projected by global climate models, the research team conducting the work estimates.

The study, which appeared online Sunday in the journal Nature Geoscience, represents a first cut at trying to calculate from direct measurements the impact of climate change on the Northern Hemisphere's cryosphere. The study was conducted by a team of federal and university scientists who examined data gathered between 1979 and 2008. more

EPA presents plan on greenhouse gases

Wednesday 05 January 2011 at 10:38 pm By Mark Clayton


Washington - Setting the stage for a New Year battle royal between Congress and the White House over greenhouse gas emissions, the US Environmental Protection Agency Thursday laid out a timetable for the nation's largest carbon emitters – power plants and refineries – to begin curbing those pollutants.

Republicans have said all year that they plan to pull out all the stops to keep the EPA from phasing in greenhouse gas (GHG) regulations beginning in 2011, saying they would damage the energy industry, raise prices, and cost jobs.

Rep. Fred Upton (R) of Michigan, the incoming chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, has said he opposes the regulations on greenhouse gases and indicated he would lead efforts to revoke EPA regulations in the next Congress. The new regulations, he says, will likely lead to the shut down of coal-fired power plants.

"To protect jobs and fortify our energy security, we should be working to bring more power online, not shutting plants down," Mr. Upton said in a statement. "We are woefully unprepared to meet our nation's growing energy demands, yet this administration's 'none of the above' energy policy will do nothing but cost jobs, make energy more expensive, and increase our dependence on foreign sources of energy."

Environmentalists lauded the EPA's move. more

Supreme Court takes global warming case that targets power companies

Monday 13 December 2010 at 03:21 am By Warren Richey,


Washington - The US Supreme Court on Monday agreed to examine a major environmental lawsuit that seeks to force six electric power companies to cap and reduce their carbon-dioxide emissions to fight global warming.

The lawsuit - filed in 2004 by eight states, the City of New York, and three land trusts - targets what it claims are the largest emitters of carbon dioxide in the United States and among the largest in the world.

It seeks a judicial order declaring that the fossil-fueled power plants are a "public nuisance." It also seeks a judicial order capping the plants' greenhouse gas emissions and requiring the plants to adopt a schedule of reduced emissions in future years. more

Outside Cancun climate conference, Caribbean Sea testifies to global warming

Monday 13 December 2010 at 03:09 am By Ezra Fieser,


Bayahibe, Dominican Republic - This summer's extreme heat may seem like a distant memory as winter approaches the United States.

But the summer that broke heat records across the Northern Hemisphere is still being felt below the surface of the Caribbean Sea: 2010 will likely be one of the most deadly years on record for coral reefs.

If diplomats attending the two-week global climate change talks that opened Monday in Cancun, Mexico, want more evidence of the negative and potentially devastating affects of warming temperatures, they need look no further than the blue sea outside their hotels. Researchers say that throughout the Caribbean coral reefs are "bleaching," a condition that occurs when they are under extreme stress due to warmer-than-normal sea temperatures. more