5 Years After TVA, MO Faces Own Impending Coal Ash Disaster

Posted on Monday, January 13, 2014 at 2:12 pm

5 Years After TVA, MO Faces Own Impending Coal Ash Disaster

By Patricia Schuba and  Judy Dasovich, MD

Five years ago in December, our country experienced one of the largest environmental disasters on record.   Over 1 billion gallons of hazardous coal ash slurry from the Tennessee Valley Authority Kingston power plant burst through a retaining damn to flood a community located along the Clinch River.  Three rivers were permanently contaminated, homes were destroyed and residents were evacuated.

Though five years have gone by, the site of the spill has still not been cleaned up nor will it ever be fully restored.

Before then, few people were familiar with the toxic threat that coal ash posed.  The disaster was a wake-up call to many, including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which began to evaluate the structural integrity of coal ash disposal ponds and the risk to groundwater from unlined and poorly managed dump sites.

Coal ash, the waste product from burning coal, is the second largest waste stream in the United States. It contains heavy metals and toxins such as arsenic, mercury, lead and chromium.  Despite the presence of these toxins, coal ash hasn’t been classified as a hazardous waste nor has there been national legislation to ensure proper disposal. Instead, coal ash handling is largely left to the states and in most locations is less weakly regulated than household garbage.

Here in Missouri, proposed resolutions in the last two years have gone nowhere. The lack of good policy or legislative action has left loopholes such as “beneficial” reuse that allow unsafe handling practices. These include using it on roads for de-icing in the winter, injecting it into abandoned mines and untold amounts of illegal dumping.

Concerns around coal ash issues here in Missouri have been growing over the past few years.  Ameren’s leaking ash ponds along the banks of the Missouri River were in many ways our wake-up call. Just across the river, Illinois had the foresight to require testing of the groundwater along these disposal sites. Such testing has found Ameren to be in violation of groundwater contamination at four plants.  Here in Missouri, the risk is the same but groundwater testing is not a requirement.

In the last year alone, there were a number of cases in our state.  Last March, a well   in Ste Genevieve County was suspected of contamination because coal ash from Ameren’s Rush Island plant was being injected into old lime mines.  A few months later, there were reports that coal ash from the same plant had been illegally dumped in Jefferson County. It contaminated personal property, a popular fishing lake, and area wetlands.

This summer, flooding along the Meramec River resulted in an Ameren coal ash pond overflowing for over 24 hours into St. Louis County.  In October, City Utilities in Springfield spewed fly ash into the air and blanketed the southwest part of the community with a layer of dangerous dust.

With numerous coal ash landfill proposals on the table across the state, Missouri is at a critical decision point. These incidents should serve as our metaphorical canary in the coal mine. We can either change, or continue deeper into a risky future with dirty coal.

In Springfield, City Utilities wants to place a coal ash landfill in a structurally risky area that puts drinking water at risk. In the Ameren service territory, there are three landfills being proposed, all in our rivers’ floodplains where there would be a great risk of flooding and groundwater contamination. Two of the landfills are proposed on top of existing ponds, which have been rated as structurally poor by the EPA and where existing contamination has been documented.

We have the chance to prevent further disasters here in the “Great River State” and become a leader in protecting our waterways and floodplains from dangerous toxins. We call on Governor Nixon and the Department of Natural Resources to reject all new coal ash landfill proposals until comprehensive groundwater monitoring is conducted at these sites. Furthermore, our utilities must prioritize the health of our communities and invest in cleaner energy sources by beginning the transition away from dirty fossil fuels such as coal.  No one should drink tainted water and breathe dirty air. It’s time to take action to protect our air and our water.

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Patricia Schuba, Labadie Environmental Organization and Coal Ash Program Director for the Citizens Coal Council.  Judy Dasovich, MD, retired Internal Medicine Physician and Sierra Club member

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