High-Hazard Coal Ash Sites, and the TVA Spill Revisited

After a secrecy squabble within the Obama administration—and criticism from a key Democratic senator—the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has revealed the locations of 44 "high-hazard" utility coal ash ponds that it said would threaten 26 communities in 10 states if the ponds suffered a big leak similar to the one that occurred at a Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) power plant in December. The final list of these facilities is available from the EPA, as is a fact sheet (PDF) prepared by the EPA about coal combustion residuals.

The disclosure of the high-hazard sites came amid a concerted push by the EPA to make a detailed assessment of U.S. coal ash impoundments and develop a proposed rule for public comment on the matter by the end of the year.

Although the EPA does not regulate coal combustion wastes under hazardous waste provisions of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, the agency says the minute amounts of toxic metals contained in coal ash may cause a risk to human health if not properly managed.

In releasing the list of sites, the EPA said 26 communities in 10 states are located in close proximity to coal-fired power plants with a total of 44 coal combustion waste impoundments deemed by the agency to be "high-hazard" sites. Importantly, the EPA added that the threat posed by those sites "is not related to the stability of those impoundments but to the potential for harm should the impoundment fail."

The 44 high-hazard coal ash sites are located in Arizona, Georgia, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Montana, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia.

Those sites are owned and managed by 12 electric utilities: Allegheny Energy Inc., American Electric Power Co., Arizona Electric Power Cooperative Inc., Arizona Public Service Co., Duke Energy Corp., Dynegy Midwest Generation Inc., First Energy Generation Corp., Georgia Power Co., Kentucky Utilities Co., Louisville Gas & Electric Co., PPL Montana LLC, and Progress Energy Carolinas Inc.

The list was compiled from information submitted to the EPA by electric utilities, which to date have disclosed to the agency information on 427 coal ash impoundments.

Root Cause Analysis

The agency’s ongoing assessment of U.S. utility coal ash impoundments follows last December’s massive coal ash leak at the TVA’s Kingston, Tenn., plant, which let loose more than 1 billion gallons of decades-old sludge over 300 surrounding acres, causing damage to nearby streams and private homes.

An independent engineering report on the root cause analysis of the accident concluded the spill was caused by a combination of circumstances, including an "unusual" layer of ash and silt underlying the 50-year old storage pond, the high water content of the wet ash, and the increasing height of the ash. The report, conducted by California-based geo-technical engineering firm AECOM Technology Corp., was commissioned by TVA in January.

Not So Fast

However, a more recent report, released July 28 by the TVA’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) found that the engineering report may have overemphasized the "unusual" layer factor.

The OIG report lambastes the publicly owned company’s management practices. It says that the breach of a 50-year-old coal ash storage pond and subsequent ash spill could have been prevented if TVA had heeded 20 years of warnings and taken recommended corrective actions.

The 111-page report (PDF) also alleges that TVA’s management elected not to publicly disclose management practices that may have contributed to the Kingston spill in its root cause analysis. In limiting this information, the OIG’s report alleges that TVA avoided transparency and accountability to preserve legal strategy.

At a U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee hearing on July 28—the third appearance made by TVA officials since the Dec. 22 coal ash spill—TVA Inspector General Richard Moore told Chair Eddie Johnson (D-Texas), "Madam Chairwoman, you have said that, ‘The Kingston spill was caused by regulatory neglect, a lack of government oversight, and irresponsible coal ash practices.’ Our OIG report that we make public today supports your statement."

Moore said that the investigation showed TVA management knew that consultants hired by TVA had urged them to perform a much-needed analysis and to take specific corrective actions, but that TVA had failed to follow the engineers’ recommendations and failed to perform the analysis or take corrective action.

He also said that TVA had a history of poor maintenance of its ash ponds and had experienced seeps or breeches in the past. Making matters worse, there were no policies or procedures at TVA for the management of coal ash. "Documents supporting this have been made public by TVA and these facts are widely-known," he said.

The OIG report also said that AECOM report overemphasized the "slimes" layer as a trigger for the Kingston spill. An engineering consultant firm, Marshall Miller, hired by the OIG to conduct a peer review of the root cause analysis, concluded that factors other than the "slimes" layer may have been of equal or greater significance.

Among the OIG’s more serious allegations was that, despite internal knowledge of risks associated with ash ponds, TVA’s formal Enterprise Risk Management process—which began in 1999—had not identified ash management as a risk. Although over the years there was internal discussion about placing the ash ponds under TVA’s Dam Safety Program, ultimately, TVA did not place the ash ponds under that program. "Treating the ash ponds like dams would have required more rigorous inspections and engineering," the report said.

Finally, the OIG accused TVA of harboring a "legacy culture" at its fossil fuel plants that impacted the way it handles coal ash. "Ash was relegated to the status of garbage at a landfill rather than treating it as a potential hazard to the public and environment," said the report.

The OIG said in a press release that TVA President and CEO Tom Kilgore had generally agreed with the OIG’s recommendations in the report. These included implementing a cultural focusing initiative across the agency to incorporate lessons learned from the spill.

He also reportedly agreed to use the "detailed, technical explanation of what and how the Kingston dike failure occurred to ensure that it never happens again and to safely close the failed cell." In addition, Kilgore said TVA would develop and implement policies and procedures to store, handle, and maintain ash and ash disposal facilities, and implement a comprehensive program for future coal combustion product remediation and conversion.

"We take seriously the lessons learned from Kingston and are incorporating them into our management initiatives to improve TVA’s performance and reputation," Kilgore told the House subcommittee (PDF). "Others in the electric utility industry share our interest and yours in understanding how and why this occurred and what additional measures are needed to avoid any similar occurrence. This is a costly learning experience for us, and it is a learning experience for the entire industry, as well."

—Johnathan Rickman ([email protected]) is a reporter for COAL POWER’s sister publication, The Energy Daily. Sonal Patel is POWER‘s senior writer.

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