Yesterday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released final assessment reports that detail the structural integrity of 38 coal ash dams. The agency began inspecting coal ash dams in May 2009, and EPA contractors have, to date, completed assessments of 228 dams. Of these 228 coal ash dams, EPA inspectors gave a rating of “poor” to 55 dams, about 24 percent of the total inspected. Nine “poor” rated dams were identified yesterday in Alabama, Colorado, Louisiana and Texas.
These 55 poor-rated dams could kill people, devastate communities and cause substantial economic and environmental damage should they fail. The EPA explicitly tells us this. Of these 55 dams containing millions of gallons of metal-laden sludge, nine are high hazard dams, meaning that if breached, they would likely take human life and 39 were significant hazard dams, defined as dams that would cause substantial economic and environmental harm if they failed.
EPA says it is committed to making communities near coal ash sites safer places to live, yet it has delayed the first-ever federal regulations for coal ash sites into 2012. Safety assessments are one thing; regulating this hazardous waste with real, federally enforceable safeguards that protect public health is another.
The problem is enforcement. When the EPA finds dams that are leaking, missing critical engineering analyses, lacking emergency response plans, or being operated without adequate inspection schedules, the EPA has no federal law to enforce. The EPA must rely on the utilities’ voluntary compliance with the agency’s recommendations. This simply is not protection enough for communities living below these enormous, life-threatening structures.
It has been almost 2½ years since the December 2008 TVA Kingston coal ash and more than one year since the EPA proposed coal ash protections. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson had promised to issue effective standards for toxic coal ash disposal in 2010, but the agency recently announced that the standards will not be issued this year, and there is no date certain for a final rule.
In the meantime, the EPA continues to discover more and more coal ash dams. The EPA’s release of inspection reports yesterday included the identification of 47 additional waste ponds, raising the number of coal ash ponds in the US from 629 to 676 ponds at 240 plants.
When does the threat from coal ash become large enough for federal action? The EPA has never inventoried the nation’s coal ash landfills, structural fill sites and minefills, but the total likely tops well over 1,000 additional dump sites, in addition to the nearly 700 waste ponds. Clearly, the threshold for federal action was crossed many years ago.