Kentucky officials will take a closer look at requiring emergency action plans for coal ash ponds after a dam failed last month at a large ash containment structure in Tennessee.
Such plans spell out procedures for notifying authorities if a dam fails or is about to fail. Federal recommendations for such plans also call for mapping the area that would be flooded in a break, as well as evacuation details.
"The event in Tennessee has reinforced our need to revisit the whole issue of emergency action plans," Karen Wilson, chief of staff for Energy and Environment Secretary Len Peters, said Friday.
Wilson said that officials will work with utility companies and the legislature "to address the resources and regulations that would be necessary to effectively implement emergency action plans for slurry and ash ponds in Kentucky."
Slurry is a mix of water and fine particles of coal, rock and clay that is produced when coal is washed before burning. A slurry impoundment failed in Martin County in Eastern Kentucky in 2000, sending more than 300 million gallons of material into two creeks.
Ash is what is left after coal is burned to generate electricity.
A Dec. 22 spill of 1.1 billion gallons from an ash pond at a Tennessee Valley Authority power plant in Kingston, Tenn., destroyed three homes and damaged 42 parcels of land. There was a much smaller spill Friday from a gypsum pond at a TVA plant in Stevenson, Ala. Gypsum also is a by-product of burning coal.
State Rep. Robin Webb, D-Grayson, plans to sponsor a resolution in this year's legislative session directing state regulators to draft rules requiring coal companies to develop emergency action plans for high-hazard potential coal slurry impoundments.
There are 64 of those in the state, mostly in Eastern Kentucky, according to the state Department of Natural Resources.
The coal industry has agreed to support the resolution.
Webb said Friday that there has been discussion about including ash impoundments in the resolution. She is looking into the issue and plans to talk to utilities about it.
Webb said she might add ash impoundments to the measure on slurry facilities, or handle them as separate measures if necessary.
"It's just another level of responsibility that needs to be done for public safety and environmental protection," Webb said.
Chris Whelan, director of communications for E.ON U.S., which owns Kentucky Utilities and Louisville Gas & Electric, said the company would have to review any proposal on emergency-action plans for ash impoundments to see how it would respond.
"We always look for ways to protect public safety and minimize our environmental impact."
The company does not have emergency action plans specifically on impoundments, but does have plans for notifying authorities about emergencies, including a spill, Whelan said.
Wilson said state environmental officials will start discussions soon with utility companies to determine whether they already have emergency plans in place. Those discussions could begin next week, she said.
If needed, she said, officials will work with legislators to require such plans.
Dam-safety advocates have long pushed the need for emergency action plans for dams, especially structures where a failure could cause deaths.
However, Kentucky remains one of about 10 states that do not require dam owners to develop emergency action plans for the structures, according to the Association of State Dam Safety Officials.
Legislative proposals to require emergency action plans for all high-hazard potential dams in Kentucky have failed several times in recent years.
Kentucky has seven ash ponds at four power plants that are considered high hazard. The state Dam Safety Section inspects a total of 178 high-hazard potential dams, including ash-holding structures. Most of those are traditional water dams and would not be covered by the move to require emergency plans for ash impoundments and coal-slurry dams.
The hazard ratings on dams are based not on how likely they are to fail, but rather on the potential for damage if they do.
Any dam where a failure would be likely to kill people or cause serious damage to houses, businesses or important facilities such as major roads is classified as high hazard, even if the dam is sound.
The two ash ponds at Kentucky Utilities' E.W. Brown Power Station in Mercer County, for example, are rated as high hazard because there are about a dozen homes on Herrington Lake below the ponds.
A state inspection of one of the ponds last July showed no problems. The other pond is new and had not been inspected.
Scott Phelps, supervisor of the state Dam Safety Section, which inspects the embankments at ash facilities, said inspectors sometimes find small issues at the earthen dams, such as trees growing on the dams or potholes or standing water on the crest. The utilities respond well and fix the problems, he said.
He could not remember the state issuing a notice of violation to a utility company for problems with a dam in the eight years he's been in the dam-safety section.
"We haven't had any major problems with them. The problems we have had have been minor," Phelps said.
A Herald-Leader review of the latest inspection reports for the state's 20 coal ash ponds showed no serious problems.
Asked whether there was any risk Kentucky could have a collapse like that in Tennessee, Phelps said, "I can't say that there is none because you just can't tell what's going on underneath" a dam.
Judith Petersen, executive director of Kentucky Waterways Alliance, welcomed the news that state officials are looking into emergency action plans.
"We think it's a very good idea and a very appropriate step," she said. "At least you give the people downstream a better chance."
The alliance is concerned about the potential for an ash spill in Kentucky. It is preparing a request for records so it can look into the issue of safety at ash impoundments, including how they are monitored.
"We've got to stop kidding ourselves that these accidents will never happen."