Could The EPA Have Prevented Toxic Waste From Filling The Dan River?

CREDIT: AP Photo/Gerry Broome

Coal ash swirls on the surface of the Dan River.

As the Obama Administration continued delaying regulation of coal ash, up to 82,000 tons of it spilled into North Carolina’s Dan River from an “antiquated” storage pit, contaminating the river with high levels of lead, arsenic and mercury. Danville, Virginia draws its drinking water from the Dan River and is located 25 miles downstream from the spill. Five days after the spill, Danville’s water appears to be safe, but the long-term effects of the spill will not be known for some time.

Sunday’s spill occurred at the kind of storage basin that has been long-criticized by public health advocates: an earthen pond located near a major waterway that provides drinking water to nearby towns. A storm pipe under the basin ruptured Sunday, allowing 27 million gallons of water mixed with up to 82,000 tons of ash to flow out and into the river before the leak was stopped. Many utilities have begun using lined storage ponds placed farther away from waterways to store ash, but absent federal regulation, spills like this one are likely to continue.

A judge ordered the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to set a deadline for creating the first-ever federal coal ash regulations due to a lawsuit from public health and Native American groups, which they set for the end of 2014. It is currently unclear what those regulations will entail or when they will be implemented.

Coal ash is the toxic byproduct that comes from burning coal, and typically contains arsenic, lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium and selenium, which “can cause cancer and neurological damage in humans,” and harm and kill wildlife. Even outside of major spills, the 535 or more unlined ponds operating throughout the country pose a major threat to drinking water.

The EPA announced two paths it might take toward regulation in 2010. It could regulate coal ash as “solid waste,” the less-stringent classification, which would still require liners, more frequent inspections, and other safeguards that were absent in the Dan River spill, and could have helped prevent it. But enforcement would still be left up to the states, and citizen lawsuits.

On the other hand, if the EPA regulated coal ash as “hazardous waste,” the federal government would be in charge of enforcing and monitoring those new requirements. On top of that, wet ash ponds would be phased out entirely, in favor of special ash landfills. And companies would have to show they’re financially capable of cleaning up in the event of a disaster. Mining and utility companies claim this classification would cost too much, discouraging coal-fired power plants. In addition to the safety benefits of treating coal ash carefully, discouraging coal-fired power plants would have immense climate and air quality benefits.

Until the EPA steps in, regulation is left up to states, which Lisa Evans, Senior Administrative Counsel at Earthjustice, described to ThinkProgress as “a patchwork of programs, with many states imposing few, and sometimes, no, regulatory safeguards.” House Republicans passed a bill in July that would have kept it that way, preventing the EPA from regulating. But it went nowhere in the Senate.