Throwing the Baby Out with the Bathwater

 On December 22, 2008, a containment dike at a Tennessee Valley Authority coal ash disposal pond failed, spilling about a billion gallons of sludge over 300 acres and into a nearby river.  Calls for tougher regulation of coal ash disposal immediately followed.

Then the ironies started piling up.

First, the federal government decided that the best way to respond to an engineering failure at a power plant owned by a unit of the federal government (TVA) would be to place all power plants under regulation by a unit of the federal government (Environmental Protection Agency).

Next, EPA concluded that the only legal way to get federal jurisdiction over power plant ash disposal would be to declare the material a “hazardous waste” – despite the fact that two previous EPA Reports to Congress and two formal EPA Regulatory Determinations had concluded that no such designation was warranted.

Next, EPA began supervising the clean-up of the TVA disaster.  The agency’s solution: Transport the material EPA is preparing to label as “hazardous” to a non-hazardous landfill in the next state.

Meanwhile, what should have been a discussion about engineering standards for coal ash disposal morphed into a debate about the coal ash itself.  That is both misguided and unfortunate.  If a billion gallons of skim milk had spilled into a river, that also would constitute an environmental disaster.  But wouldn’t the focus be placed on ensuring the safety of milk tanks rather than demonizing the milk?

If EPA moves forward with its plan to designate coal ash as “hazardous” even for the limited purposes of disposal, it will stigmatize the resource and make it unattractive for recycling.  The unintended consequences: Millions more tons of waste to dispose each year and millions more tons of greenhouse gas emissions manufacturing products to replace the coal ash that is successfully recycled today.



Hurricane Katrina was a disaster, too.  Should we designate water as “hazardous?”



Posted by: on: Feb 03, 2010 @ 08:56