Coal Ash Disposal Not So Hazardous After All?

Last June’s publication of a list of 44 “high hazard” coal ash disposal sites caused quite a stir.  But guess what? The EPA now says none of those sites pose an immediate safety threat.

            After the failure of a coal ash disposal facility in Tennessee in December 2008, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency undertook an ambitious program to classify and inspect similar facilities across the nation.  As a first step, the agency prioritized facilities most likely to cause serious damage if they failed.

EPA initially withheld publishing the list of priorities, but was besieged for that decision by dozens of news stories and a press conference by Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chair Barbara Boxer.  When EPA relented and released the list, it was easy to see why it could be misrepresented.

                The list was compiled according to dam safety standards that apply to all kinds of things impounded behind dams.  The “high hazard” classification has nothing to do with the “hazardousness” of the material or even the actual integrity of the dam.  It just means that IF the dam breaks, there are people or things downstream that can get hurt.  Literally thousands of dams in the U.S. qualify as “high hazard.” 

            Nevertheless, environmental groups seized on the announcement and newspaper stories carried headlines like this one in The New York Times: “E.P.A. Lists ‘High Hazard’ Coal Ash Dumps.”

            Last Thursday, EPA reported on the second phase of its work, which involved hiring qualified dam inspectors to determine if any coal ash impoundment structures are actually likely to fail.  EPA has now inspected a total of 83 impoundments.  Its conclusion: “Expert experience has shown that only impoundments rated as ‘unsatisfactory’ pose immediate safety threats.  None of the impoundments assessed received an ‘unsatisfactory’ rating.”

            EPA also released action plans developed by 22 electric utility facilities with coal ash impoundments, describing the measures the facilities are already taking to make their impoundments safer.  Electric utilities are cooperating with EPA on this effort.  According to Jim Roewer, executive director of the Utility Solid Waste Activities Group, “We welcome the report and believe it is a constructive step in developing a federal program to properly manage coal combustion byproducts.  The industry supports federal dam safety regulations in combination with federal regulation of coal ash as a non-hazardous waste to ensure the safety of public health and the environment. If the agency takes this approach, it will have established an extremely effective regime, without killing coal ash recycling.”

            All of EPA’s coal ash impoundment inspection reports can be found here:

            Coal ash disposal standards can be improved without stigmatizing the valuable coal ash resource with a misleading “hazardous” label.




Hoover Dam is a “high hazard” structure, too, but no one is proposing to label water as “hazardous.”


Posted by: on: Feb 10, 2010 @ 11:03