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As Congress Debates, Coal Ash Cleanup Happens in SE States

Utilities in southern coastal states are cleaning up the coal ash left from decades of power generation. (Sierra Club)
Utilities in southern coastal states are cleaning up the coal ash left from decades of power generation. (Sierra Club)
September 12, 2016

CHARLESTON, W.V. — As Congress debates the issue, utilities and communities in southeastern states are moving ahead with clean up of millions of tons of coal ash in impoundments at power plants.

Until recently, Congress had been deadlocked regarding this legacy of a coal-powered century. In the meantime, groups like the Southern Environmental Law Center have pushed utilities in southern coastal states to take the waste from the big storage ponds and bury it in dry, lined landfills.

Frank Holleman, senior attorney with the center, said cleanup projects are happening across Georgia and North and South Carolina.

"We're moving toward a recognition by communities and utilities that this unlined storage of ash in earthen pits next to waterways just is not a good idea long term,” Holleman said.

Coal ash ponds can leak arsenic, lead, heavy metals and mercury into the waterways where power plants are typically located. Some members of Congress have argued that the coal ash is not that hazardous and should not be treated like hazardous waste.

There are now some signs of motion on the issue at the federal level. The EPA has imposed what Holleman called minimal storage standards and effluent limits. But the senate is considering language that critics charge could undermine those standards.

In the House, West Virginia Congressman David McKinley has proposed legislation he said would increase recycling of the waste. But Holleman said recycling is already happening.

"So you don't need a new law from politicians in Washington,” Holleman said. "Instead, what the proposed legislation's trying to do is weaken the new minimum rules that EPA has put into place."

He said some drinking water sources in South Carolina are seeing 60 to 90 percent reductions in the levels of certain pollutants. The cleanup is especially important near the coast, given sea-level rise from climate change.

According to Holleman, sometimes it has taken lawsuits to get results, but not always.

“In many instances, the utilities have decided on their own to remove the ash from these dangerous, old, aging, unlined pits."

Dan Heyman, Public News Service - WV