Southern Alliance for Clean Energy's Smith makes case for regulating power plant ash

On the heels of last month's coal ash spill at the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston Fossil Plant, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee has begun investigating the cause of the spill and discussing the future regulation of coal ash. During today's OnPoint, Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, gives on update on the status of the Tennessee sludge spill and discusses his recent testimony before Senate EPW. He explains why coal ash is currently not regulated as a hazardous substance and makes the case for changing its classification. Smith also talks about how this incident will affect the future of the Tennessee Valley Authority and utilities around the country.


Monica Trauzzi: Welcome to the show. I'm Monica Trauzzi. With us today is Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. Stephen, thanks for coming on the show.

Stephen Smith: Thanks for the opportunity.

Monica Trauzzi: Stephen, last month's coal ash spill in Tennessee was a major environmental story. It's made national headlines. Bring us up to speed on the status of the sludge spill and how things look on the ground at this point.

Stephen Smith: Well, first of all, the ground is devastated. I mean you have acres and acres, over 300 acres of beautiful lakefront property that has just been wiped out by this massive coal sludge. In some places it's 20 feet deep. It has filled up a number of coves, literally knocked some homes off their foundations, up in a lot of people's backyards. And it's in the Emory River, which flows into the Clinch River and ultimately flows into the Tennessee River, which is the fifth-largest river system in the United States. TVA is feverishly trying to figure out a way to deal with this. They were clearly caught off guard. They did not have an emergency plan to really deal with something on this magnitude. This, quite literally, is the largest industrial spill, we think, in the history of the United States, over a billion gallons of this toxic sludge spilt out into the environment and we're still trying to figure out the characterization of that. We're trying to understand what was all in the ash? We demanded that TVA fully characterize that ash. We need to understand the extent of the contamination. The good news is that this happened literally on a cold December evening. If it had happened in an afternoon in July people would have been killed because people recreated in these areas. The other good news is that most of the drinking water samples are coming back OK at this point, but there's a number of different pathways that people can get contaminated. So, this is a very fluid, literally fluid situation.

Monica Trauzzi: Do we have a sense of how long cleanup might take?

Stephen Smith: No, no solid sense. I mean TVA originally said it might be weeks. There's no way, we're looking at months and years. This is a monumental task for them to get this stuff back under control.

Monica Trauzzi: OK, so this is all about coal ash. Currently, how are utilities dealing with coal ash?

Stephen Smith: Well, unfortunately they're pretty much self-dealing with it. There's really no federal regulation on dealing with coal ash. As I said today during the testimony, it's a sad state of affairs that your household garbage, once it gets into a landfill, is actually more regulated than toxic coal ash. So we're very concerned about that. EPA has real responsibility here. They need to step up. We'll talk more about that, but right now it's pretty much a self-regulated deal in a number of states. Some states are actually doing good things. My understanding is states like Wisconsin actually have some good regulations for dealing with this, but most states are not. And some states, like Alabama and even Texas, pretty much aren't tracking it at all. And so I don't believe that we fully know the extent of the contamination or where a lot of this ash goes. Unfortunately, the Environmental Protection Agency can't answer that question right now because they're not fully monitoring this and regulating it. So I think it's a very big problem. Some of it is the massive release like we've seen. There have been other spills like that, nothing of this scale. But a lot of it is just the chronic seepage of this stuff into the groundwater and into waterways.

Monica Trauzzi: This accident has reopened the discussion over whether coal ash should be regulated as a hazardous substance. It's currently considered a special material by EPA. What's EPA's reasoning for not including it under the hazardous material characterization?

Stephen Smith: Well, they actually, in March of 2000, were prepared and we actually submitted as part of our testimony their document that they were ready to regulate it under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. My understanding is that it went to OMB and there was a lot of lobbying by the coal industry and the utility industry and they chose not to do it. But even then they said that they would continue to monitor the situation and they would set standards. Eight years later we still do not have those standards. And so that has really been just, I think, really a negative reflection of our Environmental Protection Agency, because this stuff is largely out of control.

Monica Trauzzi: But taking this case specifically, what would be EPA's scientific reasoning for including this as a hazardous material?

Stephen Smith: Well, I think that it presents a clear and present danger to the public. I mean there are a number of heavy metals. I mean if you look at the type of material in there, arsenic, lead, beryllium, thallium. You know, you can go down a whole list that sounds like the periodic table. This stuff has a number of different potentially dangerous chemicals in it and in concentrations. And the interesting thing is as we continue to tighten our air regulations with things like the Clean Air Interstate Rule and other things that are coming on, we're actually going to increase the amount of ash. The utility's claim that when they put a selective catalytic reduction unit and a scrubber on a coal plant they really don't need a lot more of the mercury controls. The reason they argue that it is because the mercury is pulled out into the sludge from the scrubber. Well, you can't have it both ways; you can't not be putting it into the air, but then also not regulating the ash. So this is actually a very big problem we have now, but as we tighten our air regulations and pull it out of the smokestacks, it ends up in this ash. So we need greater regulation. Lots of unanswered questions. I don't think EPA has a solid rationale for why they're not doing this. And I think we need to have the new administration really reconsider this.

Monica Trauzzi: So looking forward to the new administration, how would you expect regulation and legislation to go heading into the next year or so on this?

Stephen Smith: Well, I heard today at the Environment and Public Works Committee that Senator Barbara Boxer is going to ask some of those various questions to the new appointee as she goes before her committee for confirmation. We need to make sure that the new administration does that. You know, let's be clear, this happened, the 2000 determination happened under the Clinton/Gore administration. And Carol Browner is back and we hope that she'll insist that these things are looked at. We hope that the new administration will take a relook at the whole sort of lifecycle of coal because from sort of cradle to grave this is a dirty business. As I said in my testimony today, we not only washed out a number of coves and homes in East Tennessee, we also washed away a million dollars worth of clean coal advertising because all of the sudden now people realize that coal is dirty business and we've got to do something about that.

Monica Trauzzi: So let's talk about what this all means for the Tennessee Valley Authority. What laws, what environmental laws do you think that they violated here and what did they do wrong?

Stephen Smith: Well, we have filed, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy has filed a notice to sue under two provisions. One is the Clean Water Act, we've given a 60 day notice on that and we've given a 90 day notice on the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. Clearly, under hazardous waste they cannot be open dumping this material around. So they need to get this under control and so that's one of the provisions we'll be looking at under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. They also have violated the Clean Water Act, because now they have released all this stuff in the waterways of the United States and they're clearly violating any permits because they've got a billion gallons of this stuff that's spilled out into the Emory River. So they've got to get that under control. But the bottom line is that TVA was using a form of ash disposal called wet stacking, where they have literally stacked over 50 years worth of ash over 60 feet into the air and they've used the ash itself as the walls and the containment. And this is a practice, this wet stacking, that needs to be immediately phased out.

Monica Trauzzi: Is that a standard practice throughout the country?

Stephen Smith: That is a standard practice. I mean some of the newer facilities are using, and the preferred route is dry storage of this ash in containment. So we all want to see the wet stuff, everyone that I've talked to, all the scientists and engineers and others tell me you want to keep this stuff out of the water. And so storing it wet doesn't make a lot of sense. And so that's the immediate thing that should be done. We've also seen that the state regulatory agencies appear to have granted a number of waivers and we're investigating that. And TVA had early warning that there were structural problems with this. And as we investigate that more we think we'll find that there was really a lack of oversight and some shortcuts that were taken. There's actually a report now that has been reported in several newspapers that TVA was given a $25 million option to shift to a dry storage way of handling this material and they chose to go to cheaper route and that ultimately is going to end up costing them more in the long run.

Monica Trauzzi: Will TVA be used as an example for the rest of the nation? Are authorities going to come down hard on TVA so that other utilities will look at what happened here and maybe act?

Stephen Smith: I hope so, but I think the real question here is that TVA should be a leader, I mean TVA has got 11 coal-fired power plants, six of them use this wet storage technique. TVA should be providing leadership on new ways to go, not only with ash storage, but in all of its energy generation.

Monica Trauzzi: Final question here. There's concern that if coal ash were to be considered a hazardous waste electricity rates would go up for consumers. Do you see that happening, I mean especially with TVA? They already raised rates at the end of last year. I would imagine for consumers in the area that's a big concern.

Stephen Smith: Well, maybe so, but this is the cost of doing business if you're going to burn coal. The good news is we've got four positions at the TVA board that are going to be appointed by the new administration by May of this year. We need to take advantage of that and put people in office that will encourage energy efficiency and renewables which can begin to offset some of these costs and begin to look at really cleaning up the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Monica Trauzzi: OK, we'll end it there. Thanks for coming on the show.

Stephen Smith: Thank you.

Monica Trauzzi: Thanks for watching. We'll see you back here tomorrow.

[End of Audio]



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