The crazy quilt of regulations governing coal ash disposal across the United States got a new patch this week when North Carolina lawmakers passed a law requiring stricter regulation of coal ash impoundments, the giant lagoons where utility companies store the nearly 6 million pounds of toxic combustion waste generated each year at electric power plants.
The state House passed the bill on Wednesday. Already approved by the state Senate, it now goes to Gov. Beverly Perdue (D) for her signature.
Despite the requests of environmental advocates, the federal government still does not regulate coal ash as hazardous waste, leaving oversight largely up to the states. However, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson has said she will propose a regulation by year's end.
As we reported earlier this week, Gov. Perdue already endorsed the legislation, which was championed by state Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Guilford County Democrat. The other original sponsors of the measure were state Reps. Grier Martin (D-Wake) and Susan Fisher (D-Buncombe).
The law moves responsibility for inspecting the dams from the N.C. Utilities Commission to the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources. The Utilities Commission required dam inspections by independent engineers every five years.
N.C. DENR will be required to inspect high-hazard dams -- those where a failure would likely kill people -- every other year. Steve McEvoy, North Carolina's dam safety engineer, told the Charlotte Observer that the state is already inspecting high-hazard dams every year in practice, while dams classed as low-hazard are inspected every five years:
McEvoy said state engineers will have to review the dams coming under their supervision to determine their hazard classifications under DENR standards. Ratings by different agencies can be inconsistent. The DENR database, for example, labels as low-hazard Duke's ash-basin dams at its Marshall plant in Catawba County and Buck plant in Rowan County. But the Environmental Protection Agency last month listed those dams, and dams at four other Duke plants, as high hazard.
The EPA's recent release of the list of high-hazard ash impoundments has highlighted problems with how those facilities' hazard ratings are determined. As we reported, the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston facility did not appear on the agency's high-hazard list -- despite the clear potential for deaths had the billion-gallon spill that occurred late at night last winter happened instead on a summer day.
The EPA's list of the nation's high-hazard coal ash dumps included 44 in all -- none of them in Tennessee.
It turns out this was because EPA allowed TVA to rate its own facilities -- and it ranked all of its coal ash impoundments as "low hazard." The Knoxville, Tenn.-based Southern Alliance for Clean Energy called the self-rating system "outrageous." Since then, TVA has raised the hazard ratings on a number of its coal ash facilities, the New York Times reports:
... [T]he utility sent a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency saying that "in the interest of taking a conservative, self-critical approach," it had reclassified four of its sites, Bull Run and Cumberland in Tennessee and Colbert and Widows Creek in Alabama, as "high hazard." Most of the others were reclassified as "significant" hazards, which means that dam failure would most likely result in economic loss and environmental damage.
Meanwhile, a report released this week by consultants hired by TVA found widespread problems with how the federal utility is operating and maintaining its coal ash disposal sites. The consultants found that "the necessary systems, controls and culture were not in place" to properly manage ash at the company's 11 coal-fired power plants, the Associated Press reports:
The report found TVA had no standard operating or maintenance procedures and failed to conduct annual training for engineers doing inspections. It said there was little or no internal communication between the four TVA divisions responsible for ash retention.
The consultants also said that two earlier leaks at the Kingston facility were patched without "investigating the cause of the incidents beyond the specific physical occurrences." The consultants are with the law firm McKenna Long & Aldridge of Atlanta.