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N.C. Coal Ash Spill Sheds Light On Role Played by EPA

The federal investigation of Duke Energy's Feb. 2 coal ash spill sheds light not only on the company and its state regulator, but also on that of the Environmental Protection Agency and holds wider implications for the coal industry as a whole.
March 23, 2014, 7am PDT | Irvin Dawid
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"The Dan River spill underscores a broader problem: Coal remains the dominant source of energy in the U.S., and yet coal ash resides in a murky regulatory landscape. The Environmental Protection Agency has no single federal standard requiring that ponds be lined and no common standard for pit or pond structures and monitoring," writes Valerie Bauerlein about the nation's third largest coal ash spill that is the topic of a federal grand jury "as part of a criminal investigation by the U.S. attorney's office for the Eastern District of North Carolina."

Prompted by lawsuits from environmental groups, the agency is now under pressure from a federal judge to release a rule on how to monitor and store coal ash by Dec. 19. The EPA has signaled in recent public filings that it is likely to regulate coal ash at the same level as municipal waste, which coal-ash producers say would require more monitoring and effluent control but likely not wholesale changes at most existing coal-ash ponds.

Until that time, "the lack of federal rules leaves states administering a mishmash of regulations that have been little updated since coal-ash ponds proliferated in the 1950s," writes Bauerlein. And there are "about 600 ponds and 300 landfills at 495 coal-fired power plants nationwide as of 2010" according to EPA. 

According to a Duke University study on the nation's worst coal ash spill, coal ash contains toxins such as arsenic and selenium. "This is a national problem," said Avner Vengosh, who led the Duke University research and advocates storing coal ash in lined landfills. "Why has nothing changed?" [See Avner Vengosh's 2012 op-ed, "Coal ash’s threat to N.C. water."]

One reason may be that classifying coal ash as a hazardous waste might imperil the 47% of it that is recycled into products like wallboard and cement, according to the American Coal Ash Association.

Bauerlein's article also points to a notable and perhaps unexpected "spar" between Gov. Pat McCrory and his former employer of over 28 years, Duke Energy, over the spill. Previously we wrote that the state regulating agency, the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and Duke Energy had a very cozy relationship.

In a related development further illustrating the break-up of the Duke Energy/DENR relationship, "North Carolina regulators cited Duke Energy on Thursday (March 20), saying the utility deliberately dumped 61 million gallons of toxic coal ash waste into a tributary of the Cape Fear River," writes David Zucchino in the Los Angeles Times.

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Published on Tuesday, March 18, 2014 in The Wall Street Journal - U.S.
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