Posts Tagged ‘fly ash’

State Legislature Kills Mountaintop Removal Ban Through Delays

Wednesday, April 18th, 2012 - posted by Madison

By Molly Moore

The Scenic Vistas Protection Act, a bill to end mountaintop removal coal mining in Tennessee, was killed by a state House subcommittee after the bill was heard by the state’s Senate this March.

The Tennessee hearing marked the first time that a bill to ban mountaintop removal was heard by a full legislative chamber in a state with active mountaintop removal mining. The bill would have protected Tennessee’s virgin ridge lines above 2,000 feet from the destructive mining practice.

The state Senate delayed an up-or-down vote on the bill, which sent the bill to a House subcommittee. That subcommittee then delayed a vote on the bill by sending it to a summer study session. Rep. Richard Floyd, who proposed the motion, said the summer session would give the subcommittee more time to study the issue. The Scenic Vistas Protection Act, active in the Tennessee legislature for the past five years, also languished in summer study in 2011, with no action and no result.

Rep. Mike McDonald, the bill’s House sponsor, told the subcommittee, “We have lost eight mountains since 2008 by delaying. If we don’t vote this year, we will lose more mountains.”

Prominent Tennesseans, such as former Knoxville mayor Victor Ashe and Rev. Gradye Parsons, the highest elected official in the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), supported
the legislation.

An editorial in one of the state’s primary newspapers, The Tennessean, stated, “Whoever votes “no” to passage of HB 0291/SB 0577 will be on record as supporting this wanton destruction.”

Private Property Rights Transferred to Coal Industry

A bill that transfers property rights to empty underground mine chambers from private landowners to coal companies was signed by Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell in April. The bill allows companies to dispose of toxic waste in these chambers against the property owners’ wishes, even if the waste would endanger the quality of a property owner’s drinking water.

A hastily written amendment to the bill says that, in some cases, companies must get landowners’ consent. But the bill also says, “such consent shall not be unreasonably withheld if the owner has been offered reasonable compensation for such use.” This provision would leave it up to the courts to decide whether a landowner who refused to allow waste disposal on his or her land for a fee was being unreasonable.


Fly Ash Lawsuit Refiled Against Dominion Virginia Power

More than 400 residents near the Battlefield Golf Club in Chesapeake, Va., refiled a lawsuit this February asking for $2 billion in damages related to water contamination from the coal ash on which the course was built. The Virginian-Pilot reported that court records show well water testing with elevated levels of toxic substances — including lead, vanadium, cobalt and cadmium.

Coal Plant Shutdowns

GenOn Energy will shut down seven coal-fired power plants in Pennsylvania and Ohio after a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ruling forced the utility to greatly reduce the plants’ sulfur dioxide emissions. In Chicago, Midwest Generation agreed to shut down its two plants in exchange for community groups dropping lawsuits against the company.

Coal’s Share of U.S. Electricity Generation Falls to 35-Year Low

Competition from natural gas and mild weather contributed to a 35-year low in the share of U.S. power generated from coal. Although coal still generates the largest share of electricity in the country, its share of monthly power generation dropped below 40 percent in November and December, 2011, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

Premium Coal Fined For New River Damage

In response to a Jan. 1 coal slurry spill into Tennessee’s New River, the state Department of Environment and Conservation has levied a fine of up to $196,000 against Premium Coal. The company has until April 21 to appeal the fine.

OSM/BLM Merger Moves Ahead

On March 12, the U.S. Department of Interior announced it would move forward with the consolidation of the Office of Surface Mining into the Bureau of Land Management. Proponents say the move will generate savings, while critics say OSM needs to remain an independent agency to be effective.

Alpha Named Most Controversial Mining Company

Alpha Natural Resources took the top spot recently when RepRisk, a firm specializing in environmental and social risk, released a report ranking the world’s most controversial mining companies. The report was released just days after Alpha Chairman Michael J. Quillen announced he was stepping down.

Penn Students Pass Resolution Against Mountaintop Removal

The University of Pennsylvania Undergraduate Assembly passed a resolution on Feb. 21, urging the university to reevaluate its relationship with longtime partner and coal supporter PNC Bank. The resolution by the Penn Community Against Mountaintop Removal, passed with a vote of 20-4.

UBB Mine Manager Charged

Massey mine superintendent Carl May was charged with conspiracy in February for violating mine safety laws in the 2010 explosion that killed 29 miners at the Upper Big Branch facility in Raleigh County, W.Va. Federal prosecutors allege that May and others knowingly put coal production ahead of worker safety on numerous occasions.

Tennessee Crud- Appalachia plays host to yet another environmental disaster

Thursday, February 5th, 2009 - posted by interns

Story by Bill Kovarik

At first, when a 55-foot wall of coal fly ash sludge broke loose from an earthen dam early Dec. 22 near Kingston, TN, the nation barely paid attention.

Initial reports from the Associated Press said there had been an isolated spill of “inert material not harmful to the environment,” according to TVA.

Within two days, as observers with environmental and science organizations began to question reports about the size and toxic nature of the spill, at least five independent toxicological test efforts were launched. These included sampling by the U.S. EPA, Appalachian Voices in partnership with Appalachian State University, and United Mountain Defense working with the
Environmental Integrity Project, Duke University, and others.

The disaster involved 5.4 million cubic yards of material, or an estimated one billion gallons of wet coal fly ash sludge. It was, officially, the largest toxic spill on record, and compares to a 300 million gallon coal slurry sludge spill on Oct. 11, 2000 at Inez, Martin County, Kentucky and to the 11 million gallon oil spill from the Exxon Valdez on March 24, 1989.

The December 22 coal fly ash disaster covered approximately 400 acres with a thick layer of toxic muck. Aerial photo by Dot Griffith Photography

Using descriptions of toxic make-up of the sludge, it was possible to put together estimates of an enormous amount of carcinogens and neurotoxins released into the river. These included a witches’ brew of 2.2 million pounds of arsenic, 5.6 million pounds of chromium VI, five million pounds of lead, nearly a million pounds of thallium and another million of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.

Experts expected to find evidence of contamination in the river, and they did.
“Of the 17 compounds we tested, eight of them popped out as significantly higher than they should have been,” said Dr. Shea R. Tuberty of Appalachian State University, who conducted tests along with Dr. Carol Babyak.

“Arsenic was quite hot,” Tuberty said, with levels at 3.06 parts per million, or 300 times higher than EPA’s drinking water standard.

Testing by EPA, Duke University and other independent groups also showed a very high level of toxins in the river.

In rather sharp contrast, results from TVA itself showed a far different picture, with arsenic 20 to 40 times lower than the drinking water standard or sometimes even below detection. TVA conceded that one sample from the river near the spill “slightly exceeds drinking water standards.”

Senate hearing grills TVA chief Kilgore

A composite map of the region surrounding the TVA coal ash spill, pictured in high resolution before the December 22 disaster. Marks indicate direction of river water flow

As TVA’s public relations efforts collapsed, the U.S. Senate Environment committee called a hearing with TVA head Tom Kilgore as its star witness. Kilgore emphasized that TVA would “do cleanup right,” but did not explain how.

Senators repeatedly asked Kilgore for a sign that he took TVA’s leadership role in regards to environmental stewardship seriously.

With cleanup costs so high, one senator asked whether there aren’t cheaper and safer ways to generate electricity. No, Kilgore said: “Solar we don’t have a lot of,” and wind energy would cost “70 cents per kilowatt hour.” In fact, TVA itself charges green power consumers only 2.6 cents more for wind power than for coal power.

Asked about conservation, Kilgore could only point to a feeble program that TVA started within the last few years.

Repeated questions about TVA’s honesty met with stony resistance. New Jersey senator Frank Lautenberg asked why TVA told people that coal ash is not toxic, and not something to be alarmed about. Kilgore had no response.

By acknowledging TVA’s ash disaster problems with an evasive phrase — “this is not a proud moment” — Kilgore could not have given the senators less. In frustration, Senator Barbara Boxer flatly commented on one Kilgore response: “That’s not an answer.”

A week later, two more TVA coal sludge dams failed, a train full of TVA coal fell into a river, and a federal court ordered it to quit stalling on air pollution control equipment in a lawsuit brought by the state of North Carolina.

“Critics would say it looks like the wheels are starting to fall off at TVA,” observed the Chattanooga Times Free Press in an editorial describing the agency’s leaderless drift.

Fly ash had already been controversial

On December 27, Watauga Riverkeeper Donna Lisenby paddled up the Emory River to the site of the spill to obtain water and soil samples, the results of which contradicted TVA’s test results. Photo by Hurricane Creekkeeper John Wathen

Every year, 120 million tons of fly ash make up the residue of 1.1 billion tons of coal burned for electricity. Coal waste is the second largest waste stream in America after municipal solid waste. A train with cars full of a year’s fly ash production would stretch 9,600 miles.

Fly ash has often been used to make grout, asphalt, Portland cement, roofing tiles and filler for other products, but only about 43 percent is stabilized that way, according to the American Coal Ash Association.

Fly ash disposal has become increasingly controversial in recent years. Studies from the 1980s said that fly ash was harmless, but more recent scientific and EPA assessments have sounded alarms.

Environmental groups have been alarmed at the groundwater contamination by heavy metals from coal fly ash. Incidents have taken place all over the country where old fly ash deposits have broken loose, contaminating neighborhoods, threatening health and reducing property values. Fish and other species die quickly when directly exposed to fly ash, and those exposed indirectly accumulate heavy metals in their bodies, harming the ecosystem and posing a serious health risk to anglers.

Undeterred, the coal and utility industries kept insisting that fly ash was harmless. Yet in 2003, EPA identified over 70 sites nationwide where fly ash and similar coal power plant waste has contaminated surface and groundwater. The next year, 130 environmental groups petitioned the federal government to stop allowing fly ash to be dumped where it could come into contact with drinking water supplies.

At the time, EPA put off a decision on new regulations for 18 months. Five years later, regulations have yet to be written, although two years ago, a National Science Foundation report urged EPA to begin regulation.

In the summer of 2007, the EPA released a national risk assessment on coal fly ash disposal. One of the most important factors involved in risk was whether runoff could carry contaminants away from the site and into groundwater.

Cancer risk from arsenic is one of the biggest issues with fly ash. People drinking groundwater contaminated by a coal waste landfill that did not use a plastic liner had a 10,000 times greater than allowable risk of cancer, the EPA said. Other risks include high levels of mercury, lead and other heavy metal contaminants.

Communities in Indiana, Pennsylvania and Maryland have already experienced severe fly ash problems. Water supplies had to be shut down in 2004 in the town of Pines, Indiana, and families were provided with bottled water after molybdenum showed up the town’s drinking water.

In September of 2007, the Boston-based Clean Air Task Force and EarthJustice released a report on the use of coal fly ash to fill in Pennsylvania mines. In 10 of 15 mines examined across the state, groundwater and streams near areas where coal ash (or coal combustion waste) had been used as fill material contained high levels of arsenic, lead, cadmium, selenium and other pollutants above safe standards.

Also in 2007, residents of Giles County, VA filed a lawsuit over coal fly ash landfills being placed by American Electric Power adjacent to the New River. They said that landfills posed a danger to people and to the recreational uses of the river.

In November 2008, residents of Gambrills, Maryland, settled a class action lawsuit against a power company for $45 million after water supplies were contaminated by a fly ash landfill.
Though a National Academy of Sciences report in 2007 said it would be safe to fill abandoned mines with coal fly ash, the Clean Air Task Force and EarthJustice, which have been pushing for more regulations, disagreed: “The public has been told for decades that these coal wastes are not hazardous—it’s time to end that fraud.”

Water sampling shows variety of results

Wildly differing results from heavy metals sampling downstream from the ash spill have led to questions about the methods used by the TVA.

University and environmental groups, such as Appalachian State University – Appalachian Voices (ASU-AV), the Environmental Integrity Project/United Mountain Defense (EIP-UMD), and Duke University, all had significantly higher results for arsenic. The Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) also had a higher result for arsenic than TVA. Here are the sample results for arsenic (total metals) in river water near the spill.

Note: Results are given in parts per million (ppm), which is equivalent to milligrams per liter (mg/L). The EPA drinking water standard is no more than 0.010 ppm (mg/L). **


** Sometimes the results are reported as parts per billion (ug/L or micrograms per liter), in which case 3.06 ppm would be 3,060 ppb. For more information on drinking water standards for toxic chemicals, see