In Aftermath of Ash Spill, a New Round of Challenges
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
Published: March 5, 2010
CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (AP) — More than a year after a Tennessee coal ash spill created one of the worst environmental disasters of its kind in United States history, the problem is seeping into several other states.
Wade Payne/Associated Press
Sediment can be seen in the Emory River in Tennessee as machines pump it into holding ponds.
Wade Payne/Associated Press
Coal ash sediment being loaded into plastic-lined rail cars in Kingston, Tenn., as part of the cleanup of a spill from 2008.
It began on Dec. 22, 2008, when a retaining pond burst at a coal-burning Tennessee Valley Authority power plant, spilling 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash across 300 acres into the Emory River and an affluent shoreline community near Knoxville. It was enough ash to cover a square mile five feet deep.
While the T.V.A.’s cleanup has removed much of the ash from the river, the arsenic- and mercury-laced muck or its watery discharge has been moving by rail and truck through three states to at least six sites. Some of it may end up as far away as Louisiana.
At stops along the route, new environmental concerns are popping up. The muck is laden with heavy metals linked to cancer, and the federal Environmental Protection Agency is considering declaring coal ash hazardous.
“I’m really concerned about my health,” said James Gibbs, 53, a retiree who lives near a west-central Alabama landfill that is taking the ash. “I want to plant a garden. I’m concerned about it getting in the soil.”
After the spill, the T.V.A. started sending as many as 17,000 rail car loads of ash almost 350 miles south to the landfill in Uniontown, Ala. At least 160 rail shipments have gone out, said Barbara Martocci, a spokeswoman for the T.V.A.
Since the environmental agency approved that plan, heavy rain has forced the Uniontown landfill to deal with up to 100,000 gallons of tainted water a day.
Landfill operators first sent the water to wastewater treatment plants — a common way landfills deal with excess liquid — in two nearby Alabama cities, Marion and Demopolis.
In January, after what the environmental agency said were unrelated problems with ammonia in Marion, the landfill started using a commercial wastewater treatment plant in Mobile, Ala., 500 miles from the original spill.
A month ago, however, after a public outcry about discharging the treated water into Mobile Bay, that company refused to take more of the landfill water.
A private treatment facility in Cartersville, Ga., also briefly took some of the liquid in February, although Georgia environmental officials said Friday that the company, Hi-Tech Water Treatment Services, did not have a required state permit.
The facility’s manager, Amalia Cox, said the company had stopped accepting wastewater from the Alabama landfill after becoming “concerned about payments and the publicity.”
In a landfill management plan presented to Alabama environmental officials, tanker trucks could haul the dirty water to a nonhazardous waste disposal site in Louisiana and to a public wastewater plant in Mississippi. The plan also says there are “negotiations under way” on taking it to an unspecified facility in Georgia.
Environmental regulators and officials at the T.V.A. and the companies hired to take the ash declined to discuss the disposal problems.
T.V.A.’s coal ash cleanup manager, Steve McCracken, and Ms. Martocci, the spokeswoman, referred disposal questions to a Knoxville contractor, Phillips & Jordan. So did the owners of the 977-acre landfill, Perry-Uniontown Ventures and Perry County Associates.
Phillips & Jordan, which operates the Alabama landfill with its Phill-Con Services subsidiary, has a $95 million disposal contract with the T.V.A.
In a letter to Alabama environmental officials, the landfill operators said they were trying to reduce the excess wastewater, partly by using lime and soil to solidify it.
Federal and state environmental regulators have been involved only minimally with disposal of the landfill wastewater.
Even though coal ash contains toxic materials, it is not considered hazardous waste.
The Alabama Department of Environmental Management, which is paid $1 for each ton of the coal ash, monitors the landfill and has found no rules violations involving its excess water, said Scott Hughes, a department spokesman.
Mr. Hughes said there were no restrictions on where the landfill sent the drained water, even to other states, as long as recipients had proper permits to treat it.
In Demopolis, about 20 miles from Uniontown, officials failed to renew their wastewater treatment operating permit, but the wastewater plant has continued receiving the landfill’s drained fluids while operating under a special state order.
Mr. Hughes said Thursday that new orders proposed additional monitoring of the wastewater at the landfill and allowed Demopolis to accept it. If arsenic and other pollutant concentration levels meet standards, he said, there is no limit to how much wastewater Demopolis can take.
Demopolis is the only treatment plant in Alabama taking the landfill wastewater, Mr. Hughes said.