Experts call for plans for coal ash spills

lblackford@herald-leader.com, bestep@herald-leader.comMay 6, 2009 

One of the far-reaching lessons of the massive spill of fly ash and sludge at the TVA plant in Kingston, Tenn., is that states like Kentucky need to be prepared to deal with waste from coal combustion, experts said Tuesday.

"We have to look at what needs to be done in case of such emergencies," said Kingston's program manager, Michael Scott, who spoke at the biennial World of Coal Ash conference in Lexington on Tuesday.

Cleanup of the Tennessee spill, which occurred nearly six months ago, could reach as much as $1 billion.

But the Kingston disaster — and a huge spill from a coal slurry pond in Martin County in 2000 — hasn't been enough to persuade Kentucky lawmakers to pass a law requiring coal companies to develop plans in case of such emergencies.

Kentucky remains one of only 11 states that do not require the owners of high-hazard coal slurry and coal ash dams to prepare emergency action plans, according to a December 2007 survey by the Association of State Dam Safety Officials.

The latest move for such a requirement, House Joint Resolution 119, was tabled during the most recent legislative session after language was added to take away state oversight of the plans, said Tom FitzGerald, head of the Kentucky Resources Council, who spoke at the conference.

No one was hurt in Tennessee or Martin County. But people still point to the 1972 collapse of a coal-waste dam in Buffalo Creek, W.Va., which killed 125 people and injured more than 1,000.

"I would hope for the coal companies' sake that we don't have a high-hazard impoundment break between now and when we can put the regulations in place," FitzGerald said.

Bill Caylor, director of the Kentucky Coal Association, said the industry didn't want state officials to review the plans because the state doesn't have enough people to do so.

"We just want to file the plan," he said. "It would have been a first step.

Rep. Robin Webb, D-Grayson, filed House Joint Resolution 119 and has filed similar resolutions in past sessions. Utilities did not object to the requirement for action plans, but the coal industry changed its stance from the original agreement with Webb to support the resolution and tried to "dumb it down."

"It kind of took me aback," Webb said.

Webb recalled that industry representatives had some concern that when a state agency began writing regulations to put the resolution into effect, the rules could become more burdensome than it envisioned.

Webb said she didn't see that concern as realistic, however.

There are 91 coal-company impoundments in Kentucky where a break could kill people or cause significant damage to facilities such as schools and power substations. Kentucky also does not require emergency plans for nearly 400 water dams that are rated as high or moderate hazards.

The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration has recommended emergency action plans for coal-slurry and water impoundments since 1994. For years, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and dam-safety experts have urged such plans for all high- and moderate-hazard dams.

Tuesday's speakers also pointed out that impoundments soon might be coming under stricter federal oversight. The new director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Lisa Jackson, told Congress that in the wake of the Kingston disaster, she would move forward to assess coal-combustion impoundments and the use and disposal of coal-combustion residue.

"We clearly are going to have national regulations that deal with the dam stability issue," said Matt Hale, director of the EPA's Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response, who also spoke Tuesday at the conference, sponsored by the University of Kentucky's Center for Applied Energy Research and American Coal Ash Association.

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