Coal's Toxic Sludge

It's deadly, barely regulated, and everywhere. Can Obama crack down on America's second-biggest river of industrial waste?

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Big Coal has spent millions of dollars over the past year touting the virtues of what the industry calls "clean coal," but it's no secret that coal is the dirtiest fossil fuel. When you burn it, coal releases monstrous quantities of deadly compounds and gases — and it all has to go somewhere. The worst of the waste — heavy metals like arsenic, cadmium and mercury, all of which are highly toxic — are concentrated in the ash that's left over after coal is burned or in the dirty sludge that's scrubbed from smokestacks. Each year, coal plants in the U.S. churn out nearly 140 million tons of coal ash — more than 900 pounds for every American — generating the country's second-largest stream of industrial waste, surpassed only by mining. If you piled all the coal ash on a single football field, it would create a toxic mountain more than 20 miles high.

As the World Burns

For decades, the industry has gotten away with dumping coal ash pretty much wherever it wants. It poured the stuff into vast lagoons, dumped it into mines, used it to pave roads, spread it on crops as fertilizer, even mixed it into everyday items like concrete, wallboard, vinyl flooring, bowling balls, potting soil and toothpaste. There are no federal regulations to speak of. Many states have minimal restrictions on where and how coal ash can be dumped, but the coal industry has a long history of buying off state regulators with a junket to Vegas and a few rounds of golf. In short, the industry had it made. Nearly 300 billion pounds of coal ash simply vanished from view each year, with less oversight than household garbage.

This article appeared in the April 1, 2010 issue of Rolling Stone. The issue is available in the online archive.

But all that changed just before 1 a.m. on December 22nd, 2008, when an earthen dam collapsed at a storage pond brimming with coal waste near Kingston, Tennessee. Within hours, a billion gallons of gray-black sludge had oozed into the once-lovely Emory River, destroying nearby homes and poisoning the water. It was the largest industrial disaster in American history, a flood of waste 100 times bigger than the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989. The cleanup of the river, which will take years to complete, is expected to cost as much as $1 billion.

The Dark Lord of Coal Country

"The spill pulled back the curtain on a huge untold story that had never gotten much attention," says Bruce Nilles, director of a Sierra Club campaign called Beyond Coal. "Everyone had been focused on the problems with mountaintop-removal mining and on the air pollution from burning coal. But after the dam at Kingston collapsed, it turned everyone's attention on the dangers of toxic coal ash."

The Spill, The Scandal and the President

There are currently 584 impoundments that store coal ash in 35 states, and the vast majority of the sites are not only unmonitored, they have no systems in place to keep the waste from leaking into groundwater. Studies by the Environmental Protection Agency found that toxic elements in coal ash can leach into drinking water at concentrations that far exceed federal safety standards. In 2007, the EPA estimated that some residents who live near unlined ash ponds run a risk of cancer from arsenic contamination as high as one in 50 — a level 2,000 times greater than the EPA's threshold for acceptable risk.

As it happened, the Senate confirmation hearing of EPA chief Lisa Jackson was held just a few weeks after the Kingston spill. When Obama's environmental watchdog was asked what she would do to protect the public from coal ash, Jackson indicated that it might be time to crack down on the industry's dirty secret. "The EPA currently has, and has in the past, assessed its regulatory options," she said. "I think it is time to re-ask those questions."

National Affairs: Political and national news coverage from RS contributing editor Tim Dickinson

A year later, Jackson now appears poised to make good on that pledge. In the coming weeks, the EPA is expected to propose new rules laying out federal standards for how coal ash is stored, monitored and recycled. But the exact shape and substance of those rules remain uncertain — and nailing down the details may prove to be the clearest indication yet of whether the Obama administration is prepared to get tough with an industry it has left largely untouched. The White House Office of Management and Budget is currently reviewing a cost-benefit analysis of the rules — and big electric utilities are waging a furious last-minute lobbying campaign to keep them from being enacted. Sen. Evan Bayh, who accepted $126,000 in campaign contributions from electric utilities last year alone, drafted a letter to the White House — signed by 26 of his fellow senators — urging the EPA to back off. The Western Governors' Association also weighed in, urging the administration to leave coal-ash regulation to the states.

"Environmental catastrophes like the Kingston spill can be opportunities for sweeping reform," says Eric Schaeffer, who served as the EPA's top enforcement official under Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. "For coal ash, this is the moment. We need to get this done."

Back before the spill in Kingston, I visited one of the nation's largest dumping grounds for coal waste — an impoundment site called Little Blue Run, near Shippingport, Pennsylvania. Little Blue Run is a huge, eerie lake filled with ash and sludge from FirstEnergy's Bruce Mansfield coal plant, a 2,490-megawatt giant that sits on the banks of the Ohio River. FirstEnergy recycles some of the scrubber sludge from the plant into wallboard, but the rest of it gets mixed with the coal ash and pumped through big steel pipes for seven miles and emptied into Little Blue Run. The sludge has a thick, pasty texture, but it's the color of the lake itself that's spooky: a luminous, metallic blue, with swirls of emerald green. Like the vast majority of waste ponds in America, Little Blue Run is unlined — meaning there is no barrier between this toxic metallic stew and the groundwater beneath it. According to a report by the National Research Council, coal ash typically contains 24 different pollutants — some of them deadly, even in minute quantities. In humans, the toxins in coal ash can cause cancer of the liver, kidney, lung and bladder, as well as neurological damage in children. In animals, especially fish and amphibians, they can cause developmental abnormalities. The sheer quantity of toxic metals produced by a big coal plant is mind-boggling. At Little Blue Run, for example, FirstEnergy pumps 81,000 pounds of arsenic compounds into the pond every year. In its undiluted form, a thimbleful will kill you.

Because coal ash has been unregulated for so long, nobody is sure how much coal ash is actually buried where, or what its impact really is. A decade ago, the EPA determined that there were 47 sites where rivers and groundwater had been polluted by heavy metals leaching out of coal-ash dumps. In January, the agency bumped it up to 71. The following month, environmental groups examined public data and found 31 more dumps that weren't on the EPA's list. At some, groundwater is contaminated with levels of arsenic 145 times higher than federal standards allow.

"This is just the tip of the iceberg," says Jeff Stant, who directs a coal-ash initiative for the Environmental Integrity Project. "We don't really know what the risks are, because nobody has bothered to look into it very deeply."

From the start, the coal industry has used its power to ensure that coal ash is not only unregulated by the EPA but not even classified as dangerous. The battle began in 1976, when Congress passed the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, which for the first time called for federal standards on the handling of solid wastes. More important, the new law divided waste into two categories: hazardous waste, which is subject to federal regulation from cradle to grave, and nonhazardous waste, which is dealt with on a state-by-state basis. Thanks in part to the lobbying power of Big Coal, coal ash was placed in the "not worth regulating" category. Even more striking, Rep. Tom Bevill of Alabama — the son of a coal miner — pushed through an amendment requiring the EPA to conduct a study and publish a report to Congress prior to imposing any restrictions on coal ash as a hazardous waste.

An exemption from regulation may have protected the coal industry, but it didn't stop waste ponds and landfills from leaking. By the 1990s, people who lived near impoundment sites began to notice a suspicious number of diseases and illnesses in their neighborhoods. A turning point in public awareness came in 2000, when high levels of benzene, a known carcinogen, were found in the drinking water of Pines, Indiana, a community next to a coal-ash landfill. Housing values fell, and parents of children born with hearing impairments and a rare bowel disorder began to wonder if coal ash was responsible. By 2004, the town was designated a toxic Superfund site.

During the Clinton administration, the EPA took its first hard look at coal ash. In March 2000, the agency concluded that "these wastes can, and do, pose significant risks to human health and the environment when not properly managed." But rather than officially designate coal ash as hazardous, the EPA offered the industry a deal. If polluters agreed to dump or recycle coal ash according to "tailored" federal standards, their waste would remain labeled as nonhazardous. If not, the EPA would step in and brand a company's coal ash as hazardous, prompting stricter oversight.

But that wasn't good enough for Big Coal. The proposal set off a lobbying frenzy by coal-burning utilities and the Utility Solid Waste Activities Group, the industry's front group on coal-ash disposal. "The high costs of regulation," the group warned, "will ultimately be shared nationwide by employees, taxpayers, ratepayers, investors and customers." Citing an analysis it commissioned, USWAG claimed that the annual cost of regulating coal ash would be as high as $13.8 billion — even though EPA data showed that proper disposal would cost no more than $3.5 billion. The industry's numbers were "wildly excessive," says Andrew Wittner, who oversaw the EPA's assessment of coal ash during the Clinton years.

The scare tactics worked: Thanks to the lobbying campaign, even the Energy Department and the federal Office of Surface Mining came out in opposition to the EPA's proposal. In May 2000, coal ash was officially designated as "nonhazardous," allowing the states to deal with the toxic waste as they saw fit.

A year later, when Bush took office, the agency became even more industry-friendly. "He purged the EPA," says Wittner. "All interest in doing anything about coal ash stopped." The agency actively began suppressing information about the danger that coal waste posed to public health. It deleted references to coal ash's "high risk" potential from fact sheets and PowerPoint presentations, and blacked out key passages in documents released to environmentalists under the Freedom of Information Act. It sat on the damning results of a 2002 study, which found that residents near unlined waste ponds face a risk of cancer that is far higher than the level used to justify federal regulation. The EPA even formed an official "partnership" with industry trade groups like USWAG to promote the "beneficial use" of coal ash in everything from highways to carpets. The sweetheart deal allowed the industry to avoid the cost of disposing of coal ash as hazardous waste, while at the same time making a profit off its toxic mess. The working relationship between regulators and coal polluters was so close that — in an October 2008 e-mail to the EPA itself — one industry representative joked about being "in bed again" with the agency.

"EPA is supposed to be a regulatory agency," says Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a watchdog group composed of federal and state workers. "And regulatory agencies are not supposed to be in a 'products partnership' with the very industries that they are supposed to regulate."

In their latest lobbying blitz, coal-burning utilities and their allies continue to argue that putting stringent federal regulation on coal ash will cost billions of dollars, jack up electricity prices, destroy the economy, force the shutdown of coal plants and perhaps even cause blackouts. But they downplay the danger that coal ash poses to human health. USWAG insists that the way to determine if coal ash should be regulated as a hazardous waste is to use a test called the Toxicity Characteristic Leaching Procedure. Essentially, you put some coal waste in water, shake it up for 18 hours, then measure what leaches out of it. If the toxicity of the remaining junk exceeds allowable levels, the material is listed as hazardous. "By this standard, coal ash is not a hazardous waste," says Jim Roewer, the head of USWAG.

But Conrad Volz, a professor of environmental and occupational health at the University of Pittsburgh who has studied the health impacts of coal ash, says the industry's view defies common sense and sound science: "Of course coal ash is a hazardous material. Anyone who says it is not is just playing legal games."

Even Roewer acknowledges that the leaching test doesn't do a very good job of mimicking the real world, where unlined ash ponds often result in sky-high levels of contamination. EPA scientists are developing another standard, called the Leaching Assessment Framework, which demonstrates that coal ash can be far more dangerous than the industry acknowledges. The real threat with coal ash occurs when the waste comes into contact with water, which mobilizes contaminants and carries them into streams, lakes and drinking water. "What is most important is not the amount of metal in the ash but its mobility," says Susan Thorneloe, a senior EPA scientist. According to recent tests conducted by Thorneloe, leaching levels of arsenic in some coal ash can run 1,800 times higher than the federal standard for drinking water. Even in scrubber sludge, which is supposedly safe to spread on crops and use in wallboard, Thorneloe found contaminant levels of selenium more than 3,000 times higher than the federal standard for surface water.

But the EPA doesn't even need to rely on such tests to designate coal ash as hazardous — under federal law, it can look at the havoc that coal waste has already wreaked on public health and the environment. "There are over 100 cases where we have strong evidence of coal ash's impact on drinking water and surface water," says Lisa Evans, a former EPA enforcement attorney who now serves as senior administrative counsel for the environmental group Earthjustice. "By this standard, the EPA has more than enough evidence to list coal ash as a hazardous waste."

Evans points out environmentalists aren't trying to shut down Big Coal — they're simply pushing the EPA to implement common-sense solutions that have been used for years in other industries, such as equipping waste ponds with a protective lining and then monitoring them for leakage. "We're not talking about men in hazmat suits every time a truck moves a load of ash," she says. "That's not what is required here." But that hasn't stopped the industry from engaging in the same scare tactics it has been employing for decades. USWAG claims that disposing of coal ash as hazardous waste will cost $20 billion a year — a figure unsupported by any independent study. And companies that specialize in recycling coal ash into household items insist that tougher regulations will destroy what has become a lucrative business. "If coal ash is regulated as a hazardous material, it will kill the beneficial-use industry," says Thomas Adams, executive director of the American Coal Ash Association. "If I'm trying to sell shingles with boiler slag in them, who is going to buy them? Nobody." Hilariously, the industry even argues that recycling coal waste in concrete and other building materials helps curb global warming by cutting down on carbon pollution.

The irony is, efforts to clear the air may actually increase the danger posed by coal waste. As coal plants clean up their smokestack emissions by installing scrubbers and other pollution-control devices, they are creating more and more sludge that contains all the nasty stuff that would have otherwise been spewed into the atmosphere. "Clean-coal technology is nothing but a code word for 'let's generate more waste than ever before,'" says Stant of the Environmental Integrity Project.

For the Obama administration, which has been so outspoken about using science to guide sound environmental policy, confronting coal ash should be a no-brainer. After all, the cost of safely disposing of coal waste is tiny compared to the long-term risk to public health: Left unregulated, the sludge will continue to leak toxic chemicals into America's drinking water for decades to come. But environmentalists aren't so sure that the EPA, which is already under fire for failing to stop Big Coal from blowing up mountaintops in Appalachia, is ready to do what it takes to protect the public from coal ash. "I don't want to say that this is a litmus test for the EPA," says Evans, the Earthjustice attorney. "But in some ways it is. Regulating solid waste is something the EPA is very good at. The question is, do they have the political will to do the right thing?"

From The Archives Issue 1101: April 1, 2010
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