Congratulations to our friends at Earthjustice and their clients for a tremendous victory in federal district court today. Judge Reggie Walton (a George W. Bush appointee) ordered the Obama Administration to provide a schedule for regulating coal ash within the next 60 days. This epic battle now shifts back to the White House and Congress where nearly hysterical electric utilities that depend on coal-fired power plants will sweep in, aided by some very twisted economics from strong regulation’s staunch nemesis, the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA).
The coal ash crisis burst onto the national scene shortly before Christmas day, 2008, when the contents of an enormous impoundment containing coal-ash slurry from the Tennessee Valley Authority’s (TVA) Kingston Fossil Fuel Plant poured into the Emory River. The proximate cause of the spill was the bursting of a poorly reinforced dike holding back a pit of sludge that towered 80 feet above the river and 40 feet above an adjacent road. The volume and force of the spill were so large that 1.1 billion gallons of the inky mess flowed across the river, inundating 300 acres of land in a layer four to five feet deep, uprooting trees, destroying three homes, and damaging dozens of others. Miraculously, no one was killed.
The Kingston spill was the worst of its kind in U.S. history, but it was not the first, nor would it be the last. For a brief period of time, the catastrophe focused the nation’s attention on the health and environmental risks posed by dumping coal ash in unlined pits in the ground euphemistically dubbed “surface impoundments.”
The slurry contained both fly and bottom ash from scrubbers that are mandatory on coal-fired plants. Because scrubbers trap fumes before they are emitted into ambient air, the fly-ash portion of the spill contained significantly more than the quota of toxic heavy metals that typically result from burning coal. Or, in other words, in an inevitable but ironic twist, the benefits to breathers were obtained at the expense of walkers and drinkers. The Kingston Spill had released around 2.6 million pounds of toxic pollutants into the Emory River. By way of comparison, all of the other power plants in the United States released just over 2 million pounds of toxic pollutants during all of 2007.
Prominent national environmental groups demanded greater protection from Congress and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), both of which had long skittered away from confronting the problem in the face of unyielding resistance by electrical utilities. Any hint of regulatory intervention that would compel the safer disposal of coal ash and the reinforcement of old, poorly designed dumps was pounced on by industry and carelessly maintained coal-ash dumps remain the status quo.
Enter OIRA. Its review of EPA’s proposal to regulate coal ash involved 33 meetings with industry representatives who argued that the most effective regulatory option proposed by EPA—requiring coal ash that is not recycled to go to lined pits with leak detection systems--would impose a ruinous “stigma” on the beneficial recycling of coal ash. EPA insisted that in decades of implementing the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, the agency had never observed such an effect. Nevertheless, the revised cost-benefit analysis that emerged from OIRA review predicted that a stigma effect would result in $233.5 billion in “negative benefits” (i.e., costs) to society. Far weaker regulatory alternatives that would treat coal ash as if it was no more dangerous than ordinary household garbage were thus presented as the only cost-effective options.
We can only hope that Judge Walton’s deadline and a Congress preoccupied with preventing each other from ruining the nation’s economy will leave this issue to be resolved by the experts at EPA. Wishful thinking, to be sure. Stay tuned.