• Need for Coal Ash Regulation
  • January 5, 2016
  • Law Firm: Waters Kraus LLP - Dallas Office
  • Coal ash — the byproduct of coal-fueled power plants — contains several toxins known to cause birth defects and cancer. These toxins include heavy metals such as lead and hexavalent chromium. And yet, coal ash impoundments are subject to little or no regulation.
    Coal Ash Regulation Insufficient to Prevent Birth Defects from Lead, Hexavalent Chromium

    It’s not that regulators are unaware of the environmental and health hazards posed by coal-fueled power plants. Back in the 1970s, federal regulations were put in place to monitor coal slurry storage ponds. Now, coal slurry sites are subject to strict safety rules and required inspections on a quarterly basis. As a result, the last time a major collapse of a slurry impoundment occurred was in 1972.

    Not so for coal ash dumping sites — they were exempted from the 1972 regulations. The lack of oversight is made worse by the fact that coal ash is even more heavily concentrated with toxins today than it was in the 1970s. This is because air-pollution controls prevent power plants from releasing cancer-causing substances into the air. Now the toxic emissions are in the coal ash.

    Power plants dump their coal ash in storage ponds called “impoundments.” Many of the sites, especially the older ones, are unlined. This allows the dangerous lead, arsenic and hexavalent chromium to leach down through the ground into the wells supplying drinking water to nearby residents.

    North Carolina Outlaws Creation of New Coal Ash Impoundments, Loopholes Remain

    In North Carolina where the 2014 Dan River coal ash spill occurred, state legislators have attempted to address the problem by enacting the Coal Ash Management Act. The legislation outlawed the creation of new coal ash impoundments and set up a commission charged with closing existing sites.

    While it’s a step in the right direction, problems remain. Power plants are permitted to close a site by covering it up and leaving it alone. This won’t prevent the unlined dumping grounds from leaking. And budget cuts reportedly have left the North Carolina environmental agency with insufficient staff to ensure that the law is followed.

    The United States Environmental Protection Agency has also been looking at new regulations to limit toxic metals in power plant wastewater, including coal ash. The old rule relies on power plants to monitor themselves, creating a fox-in-the-henhouse situation.

    In North Carolina, where officials have been testing the wells near coal ash impoundments, ninety percent failed to meet state water quality standards for hexavalent chromium, lead and vanadium. And of the wells that did pass, many had been improperly tested with protocols that were unable to detect toxins at the levels set by North Carolina’s water rules.