What Should Happen To Coal Ash Ponds?

CREDIT: Sierra Club

A screenshot of an interactive map by the Sierra Club shows coal ash zones throughout the United States. Yellow spots mark coal ash ponds, orange spots mark "high hazard" coal ash ponds, and red spots mark coal ash "disaster sites."

Coal ash: the second-largest form of waste generated in the United States, and no good place to put it.

The main way America currently stores the polluted byproduct of coal-fired power production is in man-made “ponds” — big, black, sludgy, lakes of arsenic, lead, and mercury. It’s not known exactly how many of these ponds exist throughout the United States, though the EPA estimates there are around 600, storing coal ash for potential reuse in concrete, cement, or drywall, or for nothing at all.

Ash ponds are dangerous eyesores. They leach concentrated toxins into rivers, groundwater, and soil. As those who live in North Carolina can attest, an accident surrounding one of these ponds can be environmentally devastating.

Most people agree that coal ash ponds, for all intents and purposes, should be cleaned up and closed. But it’s not so easy. Like garbage, it has to go somewhere, and methods of closing them take time and money that energy companies are wary to spend. The challenges pose questions: How can state and federal authorities get companies to close these ponds? And what is the best way to close them?

If Thursday’s events are any indication, the answers may be in the form of a government order.

In an attempt to hasten the closure of the country’s largest coal ash pond, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection on Thursday issued a closure permit to FirstEnergy Corp. — the owner of a 975-acre slurry impoundment known as Little Blue Run — forcing it to finish closing it by 2028. The order is the product of a lawsuit the DEP had filed against FirstEnergy over the pond, which resulted in FirstEnergy agreeing to stop disposing of the ash by the end of 2016. The DEP had taken issue with the pond because its pollutants were seeping into the soil, contaminating groundwater and surface water.

The deadline to close the pond is three years sooner than the company had wanted, but later than environmental groups had pushed for.

The process of closing the pond is reminiscent of burying a landfill. According to the DEP’s announcement, the company will be required to install a huge “impermeable geomembrane liner” over the pond. Over that, it must then install a cushioned “geotextile” layer to protect the liner. Then comes a one-foot thick layer of soil, and a vegetative cover.

FirstEnergy will also be required to monitor groundwater and surface water contamination levels at more than 300 sites; implement controls for noise, odors and air pollution; and conduct post-closure monitoring and maintenance for as long as environmental problems remain at the site, among other things.

“The process to close the largest coal combustion waste disposal impoundment in the country was strenuous and thorough,” DEP’s Waste Management Program Manager Mike Forbeck said in a statement.

FirstEnergy has also posted a financial assurance bond of more than $169 million, the largest ever required by the state for a waste management facility, to make sure the work is done properly.