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Coal Ash Conundrum—The Biggest Loser?

The verdict is in. the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency turned a blind eye to coal ash reuse during the Bush Administration, and, in fact, the agency went a considerable way toward promoting reuses that were dangerous to human health and the environment. 

After a nine-month investigation, the EPA’s Office of Inspector General concluded that the EPA failed to follow accepted practices, which were laid out clearly in the EPA’s own guidelines, to determine the risks posed by the reuse of coal ash in 15 categories of “beneficial use.” Instead, the EPA for years promoted untested, and often dangerous, reuse of coal ash through a partnership with industry initiated during the Bush Administration.

In October 2010, the OIG’s “early warning” report directed the EPA to shut down the promotional website that provided a virtual stamp of approval for such reuse. Now, last week’s OIG report provides greater detail concerning the extent of the EPA’s failure to address potential risks from reuse of coal ash. 

In its most troubling finding, the OIG points to 70 million tons of coal ash that were used as structural fill from 2001 to 2008 without any effective guidance from the EPA. The agency’s free pass to large-scale dumping has undoubtedly placed communities in harm’s way. According to the OIG report, the use of coal ash as structural fill escalated nearly four-fold from 2001 to 2006. Moreover, use of coal ash as fill is often totally unregulated and can result in the dumping of ash directly into drinking water (groundwater), wetlands and sand and gravel pits where contaminants like arsenic, hexavalent chromium and lead can flow into drinking water, lakes and streams.

The damage from such fill projects is not hypothetical.

“Beneficial reuse” of coal ash spawned at least two Superfund sites, in Town of Pines, Indiana and Chesapeake, VA. At both sites, coal ash fill projects contaminated groundwater, and in Town of Pines, coal ash fills and a leaking landfill poisoned an entire town’s water supply. But here’s the rub: no one knows where the rest of the 70 million tons of ash is buried.

In a draft final report, the Office of Inspector General directed the EPA to “identify and assess potential risks to human health and the environment” resulting from “inappropriate disposal described as ‘beneficial reuse’” at fill sites. However, the EPA admitted that such assessment was impossible because they had no way of finding the sites. Thus, the OIG’s final recommendation simply directs EPA to evaluate available information and determine if “further…action” is warranted. 

The outcome is not promising. Over decades, the utility industry has been able to rid itself of millions of tons of toxic waste under the guise of beneficial reuse. The big losers are the communities that have time bombs ticking in their neighborhoods. Such threats may hide beneath a reclaimed mine, driveways, a new running track or even a golf course.

The Obama administration must reverse this course. While safe reuse of coal ash—determined by rigorous testing and risk evaluations—should be encouraged, reuse that is clearly disposal or which has not been demonstrated to be safe must be prohibited by federally enforceable regulations. This administration has lost a great deal of time, as well as toxic waste, in delaying a final rule. The greatest weight must now be placed on protection of health and the environment.

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