Story by Chris Martin
On Monday, May 11, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that it would oversee the cleanup of coal fly ash in Roane County, Tenn., after last December’s dam failure at the Kingston Fossil Plant flooded the Emory River with 1.1 billion gallons of wet ash. The EPA opened a month-long period for public comment on changes to the clean-up proposal, which closed on June 11.
The Obama administration’s new head of the EPA, Lisa P. Jackson, called the spill “one of the largest and most serious environmental releases in our history” and promised that the EPA would bring its full resources to bear to protect “downriver communities.” Prior to the EPA decision, the Tennessee Valley Authority’s (TVA) clean-up process had been monitored by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.
TVA’s current plan of dredging the fly ash from the banks of the river had come under criticism from many regional scientists, including Dr. Gregory Button of the University of Tennessee. Dr. Button has called on TVA to exercise greater caution and seek out further input from environmental experts before going through with its dredging plan.
EPA found authority for oversight of the spill under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, also known as the “superfund” law. Under the terms of a new agreement signed by EPA and TVA, EPA will approve or deny all decisions on the future of the Kingston Fossil Plant’s spill cleanup.
United Mountain Defense volunteer Matt Landon expressed criticism of the new proposal and of the EPA’s ability to improve on TVA’s mistakes. “Until we see the results of their new plan, we’re skeptical,” Landon said. He attributed the EPA’s decision to the steady stream of documentation and complaints provided by affected residents. To date, EPA has not interfered with a court order won by TVA prohibiting Landon from conducting air and water monitoring requested by Roane County residents.
The EPA proposal allots $50,000 for an “eligible community group” to hire a technical advisor to review all the documents. The Roane County government’s Long-Term Planning Committee has issued a request for the funds; the grassroots Tennessee Coal Ash Survivors Network has also expressed interest.
Perhaps the third court date will be the charm for the coal slurry contamination case against Massey Energy in southern West Virginia.
The suit, which has more than 500 plaintiffs, brings charges of wrongful death, personal injury and property damage among others against the company and its subsidiary Rawl Sales & Processing. The group is suing over alleged contamination of residential wells with toxic heavy metals and other chemicals from the injection and leakage of coal slurry from nearby underground mine sites into the area’s groundwater supply. The trial, originally scheduled for February and then May, was rescheduled once again due to the disastrous floods that rocked West Virginia May 9. The new trial date is expected to be sometime in October of this year.
Meanwhile, the West Virginia State Legislature imposed a moratorium on new coal slurry injections. A study by the state Dept. of Environmental Protection said that “operators did not conclusively demonstrate that, when slurry is injected into abandoned underground mines, it remains contained and the surrounding hydrologic regime is not adversely affected.