Three Years After Kingston Spill, Coal Ash Dumping Continues to Rise
Three years after the coal ash spill in Kingston, Tn., the U.S. has not yet established standards to curb the threat to public health and waterways posed by unstable or leaking ash ponds at coal-fired power plants. Meanwhile, the volume of toxic metals in the ash that power plants dumped in ponds rose 9 percent in 2010, the most recent year for which information is available.
According to an analysis by the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP)—“… the most recent data from the U.S. Toxics Release Inventory show that disposal in these big ponds was higher in 2010 than it has been since 2007, the year before the TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority) spill. Yet EPA’s proposal to set standards for safe disposal—which included a plan to close down ash ponds within five years—has gone nowhere.”
In 2010, power plants reported using coal-ash pond dump sites to dispose of wastes containing 113.6 million pounds of toxic metals or metal compounds, a category that includes arsenic, chromium, lead, and other pollutants that are hazardous in small concentrations and difficult to remove from the environment once released. That reflects a 9 percent increase in pond disposal since 2009, and is higher than the total reported in 2008.
In an indication of how power plants vary when it comes to coal-ash dump sites, EIP found that 20 facilities account for more than half (57 million pounds) of the toxic metals contained in power plant waste and disposed of in surface impoundments in 2010. Four of these are in Alabama, three in Georgia, and two in Missouri. Just ten states accounted for three quarters of total pond disposal in 2010, including (from lowest to highest)—Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, Ohio, Indiana, North Dakota, Minnesota and Michigan.
“Not only are coal ash impoundment levels rising, rather than dropping, but we are seeing efforts by some in Congress to thwart EPA efforts to protect the health of Americans from toxic coal ash dump sites," said EIP Director Eric Schaeffer. "EPA proposed in June of 2010 to require the closure of surface impoundments within five years. If the agency manages to issue a final rule before the end of 2012, that ban would take effect at the end of 2017, a full nine years after the TVA spill. In view of the hazards these ash ponds present, that seems long enough.”
The concentration of arsenic or other metals in ash or scrubber sludge can vary, based on the source of the coal and the effectiveness of air pollution control devices in removing these contaminants from stack gases. An increase in reported disposal volumes for these metals can mean either a rise in concentration of toxic metals in coal combustion waste, or an increase in the volume of waste containing these metals, or both.
Most surface impoundments are unlined, which means that the toxins in the ash are more likely to seep through the bottom of these ponds and into groundwater or nearby rivers and creeks. The limited amount of monitoring data shows that this is already happening at many sites that have used surface impoundments for ash disposal for decades.
On Dec. 13, 2011, EIP released monitoring data from state files showing that a total of 20 additional coal ash dump sites causing groundwater and soil contamination in 10 states—Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Nevada, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas—have been uncovered around the U.S. Previous EIP reports identified similar contamination at 70 other sites across the country.
The full text of the new EIP analysis is available online by clicking here.
For more information, click here.
The Environmental Integrity Project is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization established in March of 2002 by former EPA enforcement attorneys to advocate for effective enforcement of environmental laws. EIP has three goals—(1) to provide objective analyses of how the failure to enforce or implement environmental laws increases pollution and affects public health; (2) to hold federal and state agencies, as well as individual corporations, accountable for failing to enforce or comply with environmental laws; and (3) to help local communities obtain the protection of environmental laws.
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By D. André Green II
One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
The annual Ig Nobel prizes were awarded Thursday by the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research for scientific experiments that seem somewhat absurd, but are also thought-provoking. This was the 30th year the awards have been presented, but the first time they were not presented at Harvard University. Instead, they were delivered in a 75-minute pre-recorded ceremony.