The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published plans developed by 20 electric utility facilities with 70 coal ash impoundments, describing the measures the facilities are taking to make their impoundments safer. The action plans are a response to the EPA’s final assessment reports on the structural integrity of these impoundments that the agency made public last May.
Coal ash was brought prominently to national attention in 2008 when an impoundment holding disposed coal ash waste generated by the Tennessee Valley Authority failed, creating a massive spill in Kingston, Tennessee, that released more than five million cubic yards of coal ash to the surrounding area and is regarded as one of the worst environmental disasters of its kind in history. Shortly afterwards, the EPA began overseeing the cleanup, as well as investigating the structural integrity of impoundments where coal ash waste is stored.
Since May 2009, the EPA has been conducting on-site structural integrity assessments of coal ash impoundments and ponds at electric utilities. The EPA provides copies of the structural integrity assessment reports to each facility and requests the facilities implement the reports’ recommendations and provide their plans for taking action. The action plans released today address recommendations from assessments of 70 impoundments at 20 facilities. Many of these facilities have already begun implementing the EPA’s recommendations. Last year, the EPA completed comprehensive assessments for 60 impoundments that were considered to have a high risk of causing harm if the impoundment were to fail.
In addition to the action plans, the EPA is also releasing assessment reports on the structural integrity of an additional 38 coal ash impoundments at 17 facilities across the country. Of these units, nine received a “poor” rating and none of the units received an “unsatisfactory” rating, the lowest possible EPA rating. The poor ratings were given because the units lacked some of the necessary engineering documentation required in the assessments, and not because the units are unsafe. Based on analysis from the engineers who conducted the assessments, the ratings for these units are likely to improve once the proper documentation is submitted.
The assessment reports were completed by firms under contract to the EPA that are experts in the field of dam integrity, and reflect the best professional judgment of those engineering firms. A draft of the reports has been reviewed by the facilities and the states for factual accuracy. The comments on the draft reports are posted on the EPA’s website. The EPA is continuing to review the reports and technical recommendations and is working with the facilities to ensure that the recommendations are implemented in a timely manner. Should facilities fail to take sufficient measures, the EPA will take additional action, if circumstances warrant. The EPA will continue to provide additional information to the public on the impoundments and facilities as it becomes available.
Following the TVA coal ash spill of 2008, the EPA requested information from companies believed to have facilities with coal ash impoundments. The EPA has used the information provided by the companies to inform its ongoing efforts to assess the structural integrity of coal ash impoundments. Today the EPA is releasing responses it has received from 12 additional facilities. These responses will be posted in an updated database. After inclusion of these additional facilities, there are now 240 facilities with 676 surface impoundments in the EPA’s database. All of these facilities have been assessed, are scheduled to be assessed, or do not have any units that qualify for assessment because they are closed, do not contain coal combustion residues (CCRs), or are below ground level.
In addition to conducting assessments to evaluate and address potential structural integrity issues of CCR impoundments, the EPA is also in the process of developing the first national rules to ensure the long-term safe disposal and management of coal ash from coal-fired power plants. The proposed regulations will not only ensure stronger oversight of the structural integrity of CCR impoundments, but will also address releases to the groundwater and air to protect people’s health and the environment. The agency is evaluating more than 450,000 public comments on the proposed rule, which was released in May 2010. The target date for release of a final rule will be determined, pending a full evaluation of all the information and comments the EPA received on the proposal.