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Coal Ash Waste Disposal by Utilities Set to Improve December 19th, But What About the Growing Risks of‘ 'Legacy' Pits?

Jim Pierobon's picture
Owner Pierobon & Partners LLC

Former Chief Energy Writer and Correspondent for the Houston Chronicle; SVP for Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide; External communications chief for the American Council On Renewable Energy...

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  • Nov 25, 2014

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Coal Ash Waste Regulation and Risk

If someone were to tell you that neither a state nor the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has ever established regulations for disposing of coal ash waste by utilities, would you believe him/her?

You’d be inclined to say no, right? Heck, there are regulations for disposing of household garbage, so why not coal ash waste?

Unfortunately that, indeed, is the reality.


Here’s what coal ash looks like after it spills into a waterway. CREDIT: Southern Environmental Law Center

That reality is set to change December 19. The EPA is due to release first-ever Subtitle D regulations under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act pertaining to ash left over from the burning of coal to generation electricity.

The December 19 deadline is the result of a consent decree reached back in January and spawned by a lawsuit filed in 2012 by environmental groups led by Earth Justice, Appalachian Voices and other plaintiffs.  Environmental lawyers say it won’t affect existing “legacy” coal ash dumps but will subject utilities to first-ever requirements going forward.

Coal combustion waste poses a cancer risk 900 times higher than acceptable levels – U.S. EPA

Seems odd that this EPA, four years into President Obama’s first term, needed to be legally required to act, especially since about 140 millions of tons of ash is dumped along major waterways throughout the Southeast U.S.  every year. The ash, which becomes a heavy sludge, or slurry, once it’s exposed to moisture, can break through levees and flood waterways that feed public drinking water systems and threaten wildlife habitats.  A report by the EPA found that unlined coal combustion waste ponds pose a cancer risk 900 times above acceptable levels.

Earthen berms, levees or dikes designed to contain the coal ash sludge have collapsed allowing it to flow into waterways, thereby threatening public water supplies and wildlife.  Even as the slurry exists in hundreds of ponds throughout the Southeast U.S., generally they are unlined. As a result, arsenic, mercury, thallium, selenium, and other dangerious contaminants have been leaching into the rivers and the underlying groundwater for decades, according to the Southern Environmental Law Center

Coal ash waste didn’t pierce the public’s consciousness until . . . .

Without any regulations governing how to dispose of coal ash, utilities have pursued the cheapest solution, at least in the short term: because coal (and nuclear) plants use lots of water, it seemed a no-brainer – despite a growing chorus of warnings — to dispose of the coal ash next door to the power plant. Why ship it elsewhere if you don’t have to?

Ah, but that was before coal ash disposal drew heightened scrutiny three days before Christmas in 2008. A giant pond near Gatlin, Tennessee containing coal slurry from the Kingston power plant operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority burst through a dike into the Clinch River in Roane County. More than 1 billion tons of slurry fouled the river and destroyed homes (photo) close to the broken dike. It was the worst rupture of a coal slurry pit in U.S. history.


This coal sludge from the Tennessee Valley Authority broke through levees 3 days before Christmas in 2008. CREDIT: The New York Times

Even with such a wake-up call, this past February, a coal ash pit operated by Duke Energy near Eden, North Carolina ruptured dumping than 80,000 tons of coal ash to spill into and spread along 70 miles the Dan River which straddles the Virginia-North Carolina border. The Dan River is the drinking water source for many communities and is a primary feeder to Kerr Lake Reservoir.

Dealing with legacy coal ash waste in Tennessee

So what to do about existing coal ash dumps which are not subject to the upcoming regulations from the EPA?  That herculean task has been taken up by attorneys at the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) and other conservation / environmental non-profits. While there has been some notable progress to date, the risk of more ruptures grows in dozens of locations especially throughout the Southeast U.S.

As if the Kingston tragedy wasn’t enough, SELC has filed a notice of intent against TVA for coal ash at another coal-fired generating station:  its Gallatin Plant which is polluting the Cumberland River. The Cumberland River provides drinking water for 1.2 million residents downstream from leaking pits in Gallatin, Nashville, Rutherford County, and Williamson County. This site contains 55 years – that’s right, 55 years — of coal ash waste in unlined, unprotected pits. It’s been contaminating nearby waterways at hundreds of thousands of times the legal limits. EPA has rated the dams at these sites as needing improvement and posing a significant hazard to the surrounding communities should a rupture occur. 

Dealing with legacy waste in South Carolina

In South Carolina, legal action brought by the SELC resulted in an agreement from South Carolina Electric & Gas to clean up coal ash lagoons at its Wateree plant southeast of Columbia. The utility has made a binding commitment remove all of the 2.4 million+ tons of coal combustion waste from the impoundments into the Catawba-Wateree River.

SELC legal action also resulted in an agreement from Santee Cooper in South Carolina to stop coal ash contamination from its Grainger plant near Myrtle Beach. The state-owned utility stores 650,000 tons of ash in the plant’s waste pools, which have been discharging arsenic into the Waccamaw River upstream from drinking water intakes and the Waccamaw National Wildlife Refuge.

Dealing with legacy waste in Virginia

In Virginia, SELC uncovered decades of coal ash pollution leaking into the Potomac River from Dominion’s Possum Point Power Station in Prince William County, south and west of Washington, DC .  Three unlined, uncapped coal ash ponds there were been abandoned by Dominion without monitoring or remediation – here we go again — almost 50 years ago. SELC found evidence of these unpermitted ponds were leaking toxic heavy metals.  

Dominion and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) have known for more than a decade about ongoing pollution of heavy metals up to 127 times state groundwater standards from two permitted coal ash ponds, according to the SELC. The SELC asserts that neither Dominion nor DEQ has made any attempt to stop the contamination; it’s working to make sure Dominion is held responsible for cleaning up this waterway with significant historic, commercial, and recreational value. 

Dealing with legacy waste in North Carolina

Citizen groups in North Carolina for years have been pressing Duke Energy to clean up 32 coal ash disposal sites in the Tar Heel state. State environmental officials stepped in with the backing of Governor Pat McCrory and asserted their regulatory authority before the Eden spill to negotiate a settlement  reportedly involving fines totaling a whopping $99,111. Why so low? I forgot to mention that McCrory worked for Duke Energy for 28 years.   

That settlement, which included no requirement that Duke remove the coal ash or stop polluting the groundwater, was put on hold after the Eden spill. The state has since created a commission to chart a solution and recommend how to pay for it. Duke Energy, a $50 billion company, has said it would cost $10 billion to move coal ash from all of its sites. 

Recycling coal ash can fetch $40 per ton to make concrete

Utilities have long been trying to find commercial uses for coal ash. About half of that 140 million tons of coal ash created each year is recycled for uses that federal officials deem safe – as long as the toxic materials are encapsulated in finish products such as concrete and cinder blocks. Duke Energy reportedly has sold some of its coal ash for as much as $40 a ton. That can cover at least some of the cost of hauling it to a lined disposal facility.

To help Southerners find out more about risks to their communities, SELC and its partners launched, a website that provides an interactive map and database of about 100 coal-fired power plants and their coal ash impoundments. EPA rates a number of these sites as “high hazard”, meaning that a failure like TVA’s Kingston disaster would likely cause fatalities.

How many more coal ash pit ruptures will it take to compel action by governments and/or utilities? That is an question we may still be far from answering.

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Joris van Dorp's picture
Joris van Dorp on Nov 24, 2014

A ton of coal ash contains about 10 grams of uranium, which can be used to produce about 80 MWh of electricity in a fast breeder nuclear power station like the ones which the Russians are building.

80 MWh of reliable electricity at $50 per MWh is worth about $4000. Setting aside just a few percent of that is enough to safely process and dispose of all the existing and future coal ash (eventually) in the US, which would provide about a century or two of clean zero co2 electricity equal to the total electricity demand of the US.

Coal ash thus becomes not a dangerous and expensive polution problem, but a free source of affordable energy for Americans. ‘Cradle to cradle’

Of course this will not happen by itself, because president Clinton in his wisdom decided erroneously in the 1990’s that breeder reactor technology was not needed for the American people. So as long as the American people don’t stand up and correct this historic mistake, American coal ash will simply remain what it is today: an irritating liability and reminder of energy policy gone of the rails in the most advanced nation on earth (as long as that lasts).

Jessee McBroom's picture
Jessee McBroom on Nov 25, 2014

Hello Jim. Thanks for the article. I work with a technology that just received US Patent that was origionally designed and employed to address coal and coal ash. I you or any of the other members are interested in this technologu email me at the same technology may be employed process tar sands oil residue into electricity and useful syngas and synfuels.

Jim Pierobon's picture
Jim Pierobon on Nov 26, 2014

M. van Dorp: Many thanks for spotlighting this option. Seems a no-brainer on many fronts. Curious why a private enterprise, perhaps even a venture capitalist, doesn’t give it a shot.  I trust the quick answer to this, as you pointed out, is it cannot work without a breeder reactor. I think the coal ash challenge is so much bigger than spent fuel rods from today’s nuclear reactors, you’d think SOMEone would devise a marketable solution.

We at The Energy Collective invite you to outline specifically how this could work. That’s what we’re all about. If you’d prefer, find me on LinkedIn and let’s find some time to talk.

Jim Pierobon's picture
Jim Pierobon on Nov 26, 2014

Mr. McBroom, thank you for chiming in. I’m at least curious how this newl patented technology might work for coal ash and tar sands residue. Check you email for how we can followup with each other.

Jim Pierobon's picture
Jim Pierobon on Nov 26, 2014

Thank you Ivy for the feedback. Just about everywhere I / we turn in Virginia, solutions to energy challenges and opportunities frequently come around to why lawmakers, in this case, are reticent to address the risks of coal ash: political contributions from Dominion Virginia Power. How many more accidents such as the two outlined in my piece will it take to engage lawmakers in Virginia and in other states dependent on coal?

Jessee McBroom's picture
Jessee McBroom on Nov 28, 2014

Hello JIm. Unfortuntely I do not see any other instructs as to how to allow you to do follow up on this technolgy. You may familiarize yourself with it on the website. Look for the trash to energy technology there. Then email me if you ave any further questons at  . I am assisting the IP holder in the development of the technology.

Joris van Dorp's picture
Joris van Dorp on Nov 28, 2014

Hi Mr. Pierobon,

In my opinion, the US needs to first blow the dust off it’s world-class and highly successfull (until it was cancelled by Clinton) Integral Fast Reactor program, starting with the construction of a demonstration IFR generic fuel reprocessing and fabrication plant. It would cost about half a billion dollars and a few years to construct. This is the only thing needed to fully demonstrate the feasibility of the breeder concept, which would kickstart breeder technology implementation large scale. Basic design principles and technologies for all of this are already known and proven. If this is done, then the breeder reactor program is alive. 

Extracting the uranium (and perhaps some of the other valuable trace elements in the ash) from the coal ash  is known technology, but the issue will be that extracting fresh uranium conventionally through uranium mining will probably still be cheaper than getting uranium from the coal ash. This cost difference is negligeable in the sense that it will not even show up in the price of electricity from a breeder reactor power plant, but from the point of view of the uranium market, conventional uranium mining (in-situ leeching) will presumably remain more cost effective than coal ash uranium mining for centuries to come. So basically venture capitalists will not tap into the coal ash unless given an incentive to do so. The size of this incentive will be relatively small, but not zero.

Besides conventional uranium mining, extracting uranium from phosphate fertilizer for agriculture in the US will also presumably be cheaper than getting the uranium from coal ash. The potential for this type uranium extraction in the US is vast, at least hundreds of tons of uranium each year, able to provide most of the total electricity demand of the US if breeder reactors are employed.

So while extracting uranium from coal ash is probably a very cheap way to clean-up the ash as a side-effect, the ‘problem’ is that there are limitless amounts of uranium that are even cheaper to get, so the coal-ash uranium route will only be financially viable if someone can be found to pay for the (small but non-zero) cost difference between coal-ash uranium, conventional mined uranium, and phosphate-fertilizer uranium.

I suppose the point is that once the USA would choose the breeder reactor paradigm, the cost of uranium simply become irrelevant for the USA and limitless sources of uranium become available, including-but-not-limited to coal ash uranium. Even if uranium was as expensive as gold, it would hardly affect the cost of electricity from a breeder reactor power station. This is the key point.

Putting number on all of this would take some time of course, but could be done on the basis of literature research. No new technological breakthroughs are required.

There are other commenters active on TEC who are actual experts on the nuclear part of this scheme, who are far more qualified than me to talk about this subject. Other than that, the book by Charles Till gives a good overview of the technology and economics of the US breeder reactor (IFR) technology which is currently commercialised as the GE-Hitachi S-PRISM power station. And of course, besides the IFR concept, there are other breeder technologies equally capable (though not quite as commercially ready, I believe) to making coal-ash uranium affordable.

Apart from all this, the thing holding back these technologies is the broken regulatory regime in the USA. This regime needs to be revamped according to science, rather than appeasement of the anti-nuclear lobby. This last aspect will be the greatest stumbling block, since the economics and technological aspect of breeder technology are very well known and ready to implement very, very quickly indeed, if a rational and sufficient regulatory regime can be created.


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