In 2008, a storage wall at the TVA’s Kingston Fossil Plant in East Tennessee collapsed, dumping more than a billion gallons of coal ash waste into the surrounding rivers and community. The wet, gray sludge covered more than 300 acres, killed thousands of fish, destroyed some nearby homes and filled the Emory and Clinch Rivers to their banks.
Coal ash or “fly ash” is the waste material left over when power plants burn coal. It can contain several toxic metals, including arsenic, lead and mercury. In Kingston, as in many facilities, the coal ash is stored in enormous retaining ponds.
The 2008 spill in Kingston was the impetus for the Environmental Protection Agency to consider federal rules for regulating the management of coal ash. But nearly five years later, those regulations have yet to see the light of day.
If you’d have told Ulla Reeves in 2008 the government still wouldn’t have regulations in 2013, she says she wouldn’t have believed it. “I would have been shocked and surprised,” says Reeves, the High Risk Energy Program Director for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. “Kingston was such a devastating environmental disaster that it’s hard to believe that we would have waited this long to address the larger problem”.
This weekend, Reeves and other environmental experts and activists from throughout the Southeastern US will converge on Atlanta to participate in the first-ever Southeast Coal Ash Summit. Speaker lists include representatives from major national and regional environmental groups like Earthjustice and the Southern Environmental Law Center.
While the participants in the summit will compare notes on a variety of issues surrounding coal ash, Reeves expects much of the discussion to address the lack of EPA regulations. “It’s appalling the EPA has waited so long,” Reeves says, “and it’s high time that we finalize that rule and take care of regulating this waste stream.”
Reeves says the EPA’s inability to act is due in part to the industry’s unwillingness to accept tighter regulations and the failure of the Obama Administration to make it a higher priority. “This is just a political hot potato,” she says, “and unfortunately, it hasn’t gotten quite to the frying pan yet.”