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The regulations are due tomorrow and specifically geared toward coal ash that is stored in the form of slurry in roughly 700 earthen pits throughout the United States. The rules will be part of a legal settlement from an accident in 2008 and agreed to by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The settlement followed an accident that occurred in Tennessee involving a failed dam that allowed 5.4 million cubic yards of wet ash to release. The result was coverage of 300 acres and heavy destruction to two rivers.
According to the EPA, the goal is to make sure toxic chemicals from which ash is comprised to include arsenic, mercury, and cadmium, never leak and ultimately contaminate drinking water beneath the ground. To date, the EPA has identified 50 ponds that dam failures or other types of accidents could lead to fatalities but also serious damage to the property and environment.
The rules by the Federal Government are designed to keep communities protected from failures that pose major risks to the economy and health. However, the rules are also intended to stop contamination to ground water and harmful emissions in the air, as stated by a spokesperson with the EPA. Annually, coal-fired power plants product approximately 136 million tons of ash.
Under the new rules, current patchwork of state regulations would be replaced or enhanced. The government believes that it would be beneficial to level the playing field for all power companies but according to James Roewer, executive director of Washington’s Utility Solid Waste Activities Group, this would only work if regulations are not overly expensive or aggressive.
While not confirmed, some companies may be mandated to shut down some, if not all of the coal-ash ponds. With this, the companies would need to start using dry landfills for storing ash. One company that owns the pond connected to the spill in 2008, Tennessee Valley Authority, expects to make the switch for all of the ash slurry pools, which will be at a cost of $2 billion.
More than likely, the new Federal rules will require electric utilities to implement state-of-the-art technology for their landfills and ash ponds but in addition to this, tests on the soil checking for a problem of leaking chemicals will need to be conducted.
While these are positive steps, there is some disappointment because the EPA is not expected to declare coal ash to be hazardous waste as many environmental groups would like to see. If that happened, power companies would be forced to install new wastewater treatment and ash-disposal systems at an exorbitant cost of $110 billion over a 20-year period.