Coal Combustion Residue:

Status of EPA's Efforts to Regulate Disposal

GAO-10-85R: Published: Oct 30, 2009. Publicly Released: Oct 30, 2009.

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Franklin W. Rusco
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On December 22, 2008, a breach in a surface impoundment (or storage pond) dike at the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) Kingston Fossil Plant in Tennessee resulted in the release of 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash--also referred to as coal combustion residue (CCR)--into the nearby Emory River. The spill covered more than 300 acres and made 3 homes uninhabitable; it damaged 23 other homes, plus roads, rail lines, and utilities. TVA estimated the cleanup will cost between $933 million and $1.2 billion and take 2 to 3 years to complete. In light of the spill in Kingston, Congress asked us to identify: (1) the number of surface impoundments for storing CCR in the United States and their location; (2) problems, if any, with the storage of coal ash, and how those problems are being addressed; and (3) the type of federal oversight that exists for CCR and what, if any, issues need to be resolved. We briefed your staffs on October 1, 2009, and September 28, 2009, respectively, on the results of this work. This report summarizes and transmits that briefing. The full briefing is reprinted in the enclosure.

Our review found the following: (1) The exact number of surface impoundments at utility coal fired power plants is not known. However, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is currently undertaking an effort to identify the number and location of all surface impoundments in the United States and, as of September 14, 2009, had identified over 580 surface impoundments nationwide. (2) Problems that have been identified with the storage of coal ash include potential structural defects and other risks of collapse of the surface impoundment, such as at TVA Kingston Facility; health and environmental risks from CCR storage due to potential leaching of contaminants into surface or groundwater from unlined or failed liners at surface impoundments, landfills, or sand and gravel pits; and potential risks from the discharge of wastewater containing CCR into surface waters from surface impoundments. EPA is currently analyzing the structural hazards and environmental risks associated with surface impoundments. (3) EPA does not directly regulate CCR disposal in surface impoundments or landfills to prevent releases or a catastrophic spill, and states have a variety of regulatory controls on surface impoundments. EPA is developing proposed regulations but, as part of this effort, needs to address issues of federal and state roles for control and enforcement.

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