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Tr-Ash Talk: Shake, Rattle and Coal

The earthquake that yesterday rattled foundations along the eastern seaboard, shut down a nuclear power plant and cracked the Washington Monument also shook a great many dangerous coal ash dams, similar to the one that failed in Harriman, Tennessee almost three years ago.

Several large ash ponds are located near the epicenter of the quake, about 40 miles northwest of Richmond, including three significant-hazard earthen dams at Dominion’s Bremo Bluff and Chesterfield power stations. By definition, these dams will cause serious economic and/or environmental damage in the event of a break. The decades-old dams impound thousands of acre-feet of toxic waste from the two coal-fired plants. However, no one appears to be paying much attention.

But they should be.

One of the significant-hazard dams at the Chesterfield Power Station is a 47-year-old unlined dam that holds back 44 acres of toxic sludge. A recent inspection by an EPA contractor revealed that the dam’s slope stability did not meet accepted criteria, and, according to the report, the dam “needs improvement to increase the factor of safety.”

Records examined by the EPA’s inspector indicate that no regular inspections of the dam were done by the owner or state regulators for decades before 2009. Not one inspection was conducted from 1987 to 2009, despite the fact that plant engineers discovered and repaired a similar slope stability problem in 1987. In fact, all three of the dangerous dams inspected by EPA contractors near the epicenter received less than satisfactory ratings last year. 

Should Virginians be concerned? Absolutely. Virginia state regulators are particularly lax in their oversight of coal ash dams. Virginia law fails to protect its citizens from earthquake-induced damage or other threats to the structural integrity of these dangerous dams. Yesterday's earthquake raises serious questions about the safety of the state’s dangerous dams, as well as hundreds of other dams in neighboring states.

The southeast hosts the largest concentration of coal ash ponds, and has some of the weakest regulations. In our recent report, State of Failure: How States Fail to Protect our Health an Drinking Water from Toxic Coal Ash, we found that Virginia, as well as Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, South Carolina and Tennessee, made the list of the 12 worst-regulated states.

In a related story yesterday, West Virginia mining officials are reportedly inspecting coal-slurry dams as a result of the Virginia earthquake. The officials are no doubt taking this action because coal-slurry dams are regulated under federal and state law. 

At our peril, equally dangerous coal ash dams escape such scrutiny.  Yet Congress is blind to this oversight.  H.R. 2273, the coal ash bill that passed the House Energy and Commerce Committee last month – purportedly to protect Americans from another TVA-type disaster —fails to require state officials to inspect coal ash dams or to require dam owners to inspect or submit any information whatsoever to the state regarding the condition of their dams, including inundation maps and emergency action plans.

Maybe an earthquake will shake them up.