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Safer Coal Ash Disposal Drives Closure of Power Plant in West Virginia

Safer Coal Ash Disposal Drives Closure of Power Plant in West Virginia

photo credit: The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy via photopin cc

The true cost of coal-fired power plants is more than businesses can bear

By Richard Webster

Staff Attorney

An alliance of West Virginia environmental groups represented by Public Justice and allies recently settled with American Electric Power over alleged Clean Water Act violations at three power plants. The violations concerned largely selenium, mercury, and iron pollution, all of which are pollutants that foul rivers and streams when power plants dispose of coal ash using large unlined impoundments, known as wet handling and disposal. 

Significantly, in the settlement AEP agreed to close the Kammer plant by Dec. 31, 2015, and convert the coal handling at the Mitchell plant to dry coal-ash handling. These cases formed part of Public Justice’s coal-ash litigation project, which brings cases designed to show that more stringent rules on coal ash disposal are needed to keep toxic metals from polluting (the groups involved in the suit include the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, West Virginia Rivers Coalition and Sierra Club.) As the Sierra Club explained:

“Every year, coal-fired power plants dump millions of tons of toxic metals into our waterways. In fact, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, 72 percent of all toxic water pollution in the country comes from coal-fired power plants, making coal plants the number one source of toxic water pollution in the U.S. What’s more, 4 out of 5 coal plants in the U.S. have no limits on the amount of toxics they are allowed to dump into our water. Coal plants across the country are disposing of toxic heavy metals like arsenic, selenium, boron, cadmium, mercury, and lead in our waterways, polluting our drinking water, fishing areas, and local rivers and streams. Research has shown that exposure to these dangerous chemicals can lead to birth defects, cancer, and even death—meaning that limiting these pollutants will not only clean up our water, but will also save lives.”

This settlement illustrates two important points.  Most importantly, AEP chose to close Kammer instead of investing the money to convert the plant to dry handling.  This shows that the real cost of disposing of coal ash – instead of just polluting the environment – is more than the business can bear.

Secondly, it shows that there is a broad trend away from wet handling of coal ash toward dry handling, which is environmentally preferable, but more expensive. This trend probably started with the collapse of the dam of a coal ash impoundment in Kingston, Tenn., in 2008. That spill contaminated hundreds of acres, about 1,000 properties, and has led to a $1.2 billion clean up. 

In addition, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the owner of the dam, has agreed to pay over $100 million in compensation to the property owners that were harmed by the spill.

The trend accelerated in 2012, after environmental groups threatened to sue FirstEnergy over pollution from the Little Blue Run impoundment, but instead the company settled with the state.  As a result of that settlement, FirstEnergy has committed to $170 million to clean up the impoundment and is facing suits from local property owners. That case showed that unlined wet coal ash impoundments can lead to significant liability even if they do not fail catastrophically. 

Most recently, the second largest coal ash spill on the Dan River in North Carolina has fueled outrage about the risks that wet impoundments cause to both the environment and shareholders.

EPA has already issued a draft rule on coal ash disposal, but the draft left the agency’s options open. It is under a court order to finalize this rule by Dec. 19, 2014. Given this background, EPA should recognize that closing wet coal ash impoundments is not only good for the environment, it is also good for shareholders of utilities whose managers are failing to recognize the financial risks that the impoundments are causing. 

Sadly, despite this twofer, many doubt whether EPA has the resolve to outlaw wet impoundments. Hopefully, settlements with far-sighted utilities like AEP will send the message to EPA that it’s time to save the less-advanced power companies from themselves by phasing out wet handling of coal ash.