EPA targets 44 coal ash sites

July 1, 2009 2:02:40 PM PDT
Forty-four coal ash storage sites near 26 communities have been targeted for inspection after federal officials identified the ponds as potential threats to nearby residents.The storage ponds, which are used to store waste from coal-fired power plants, are in 10 states, according to a list released Monday by the Environmental Protection Agency. The storage sites are similar to the one that flooded a neighborhood in Tennessee last year.

North Carolina has the most sites on the list, a dozen. The largest concentration is near Cochise, Ariz., where there are seven storage ponds.

The agency said it will inspect each of the 44 sites and already has visited about half. Because they are located near communities, the agency wants to make certain they are structurally sound. The sites are classified as potentially highly hazardous because they are near where people live and not because of any discovered defect.

"The high hazard potential means there will be probable loss of human life if there is a significant dam failure," said Matt Hale, director of EPA's office of research, conservation and recovery. "It is a measure of what would happen if the dam would fail. It is not a measure of the stability of the dam."

These ponds hold fly ash, bottom ash, coal slag and flue gas residues that contain toxic metals such as arsenic, selenium, cadmium, lead and mercury, although generally at low concentrations.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who called on the EPA to disclose the high-risk coal ash locations, said it's essential that the public knows where the storage ponds are "so that people have the information they need to quickly press for action to make these sites safer."

Boxer's Senate Environment and Public Works Committee held hearings on the coal ash risks after the Tennessee Valley Authority coal ash pond broke. She also pressed for the release of the list of sites when the administration initially balked, citing security concerns.

Last year, two days before Christmas, an earthen dam broke at a coal ash pond operated by the TVA near Kingston, Tenn., sending 5 million cubic yards of ash and sludge across more than 300 acres, destroying or damaging 40 homes. The incident prompted a safety review of storage ponds that hold the waste byproduct near large coal-burning power plants.

Burning coal produces ash, which is kept in liquid, known as slurry, in containment ponds or dams. The EPA lists more than 400 such impoundments across the country, but the 44 singled out Monday represent those that are near populated areas, posing a higher danger.

Until now, the national coal ash site list has not been provided to the public. Earlier this month the Army Corps of Engineers said it didn't want the locations disclosed because of national security and that it could help terrorists target such facilities.

The EPA has been to half the 44 sites and expects to issue reports soon, Hale said, and other inspections are being scheduled. The EPA also is reviewing state inspection reports at some of the sites.

The seven ponds near Cochise, Ariz., hold material from the Apache Station Combustion Waste Disposal Facility operated by Arizona Electric Power Cooperative.

Two other utilities operate nearly half of the coal ash sites on the list and spokesmen for both companies said the sites are routinely inspected and are safe. American Electric Power., based in Columbus, Ohio, has 11 of the sites in Kentucky, Ohio, West Virginia and Indiana. "We go above and beyond to make sure our (coal ash) dams are safe," said AEP spokesman Pat Hemlepp. He said the sites are inspected annually by the corporation and more frequently by the individual power plant officials.

Duke Energy Corp., based in Charlotte, N.C., has 10 sites in North Carolina. "We are absolutely confident from our monitoring, maintenance and inspections that the dams have the structural integrity to protect the public and the environment," said Duke Energy spokesman Jason Wells.