EPA Reports on 38 Coal Ash Impoundments Find Records Lacking but No Safety Threats

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The Environmental Protection Agency released reports May 17 on the structural integrity of 38 coal ash impoundments at 17 electric utilities across the country, giving nine impoundments a poor rating for lacking required engineering documentation.

None of the impoundments were issued an unsatisfactory rating, which is the agency's lowest ranking and signifies an immediate safety threat. The impoundments that received a poor rating are not unsafe, but rather lack necessary engineering records, EPA said, and their ratings will likely improve once the required documentation is submitted.

The assessments were conducted by engineers contracted by EPA to evaluate the structural integrity of coal ash impoundments at electric utilities. The engineers made recommendations based on visual site assessments, interviews with site personnel, and geotechnical reports and studies related to the design, construction, and operation of ash impoundments, according to EPA. The engineers also relied on past state and federal inspections of the impoundments.

EPA began on-site investigations in May 2009, spurred by the failure of an impoundment at a Tennessee Valley Authority facility in Kingston, Tenn., in December 2008, which spilled coal ash over 300 acres of land, damaging homes and property (40 ER 16, 1/2/09).

The agency has released structural integrity assessments for 228 impoundments to date. EPA has requested information on 676 impoundments at 240 facilities since the Kingston spill.

Reports Positive, Informative.

Jim Roewer, executive director of the Utility Solid Waste Activities Group, said the results of the reports are positive. “The issues being identified are housekeeping and or paperwork issues,” he said.

It is the third time EPA has announced the results of its inspections, he said. “And on all occasions, EPA has found none of the [coal ash] impoundments to be unsafe.”

Josh Galperin, policy analyst and research attorney at the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, said the structural integrity reports provide valuable information on facility operations that was previously unavailable, but said some information is redacted in the reports. “There's still a lot of hidden information when it comes to coal ash,” he said.

Galperin also said the reports do not cover all the impoundments in the country. “No one knows how many there are,” he said, adding that the 676 impoundments for which EPA has requested information is the agency's “best estimate.”

“These reports are valuable, but it's not as important as getting a rule finalized,” Galperin said.

EPA issued a proposed rule to ensure the safe disposal and management of coal ash in May 2010 and is currently reviewing more than 450,000 public comments on the rule. In March, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said the agency would not issue a final rule this year (42 ER 493, 3/11/11).

Action Plans Released for 70 Sites.

On May 17, EPA also released plans by 20 electric utilities to increase the safety of 70 coal ash impoundments. The plans were developed in response to recommendations made by EPA-contracted engineering businesses in structural integrity reports.

In February, EPA released the plans of 15 utilities to improve the safety of 37 impoundments and released assessment reports on the structural integrity of 69 impoundments at 20 facilities (42 ER 327, 2/18/11).

By Avery Fellow

EPA's structural integrity reports for coal ash impoundments are available at http://www.epa.gov/epawaste/nonhaz/industrial/special/fossil/surveys2/index.htm .