WASHINGTON — Federal regulations are needed to make sure that ash from coal-fired power plants is stored safely, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said on Thursday as the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee held a hearing on the spill of 1 billion gallons of toxic sludge in East Tennessee.
Republican and Democratic lawmakers promised to make sure that the Tennessee Valley Authority helps the region recover from one of the nation's worst spill and looks for ways to prevent other spills and leaks.
TVA president and chief executive Tom Kilgore told the committee that his agency would do a first-rate cleanup.
"We'll start with the people first, and the environment comes right after that," he said. He also said the TVA wanted to work with the environmental committee to become a leader in better ash disposal methods.
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It's not entirely clear how much ash is stored around the country or where. The Environmental Protection Agency doesn't track the number or have a breakdown for the states, said spokeswoman Tisha Petteway.
According to the American Coal Ash Association's latest survey, in 2007, coal-fired plants generated 131 million tons of coal ash.
The nation's hundreds of coal ash dumps contain millions of pounds of toxic metals such as arsenic, lead, cadmium, mercury and chromium, which can cause cancer or damage the nervous system and lungs and other organs if people ingest them. The EPA has left regulation up to the states, but it's been debating whether to set national standards.
"For nearly three decades, EPA has been looking the issue of how to regulate combustion waste," Boxer said. "The federal government has the power to regulate these wastes, and inaction has allowed this enormous volume of toxic material to go largely unregulated."
However, she said she hoped the EPA would decide to regulate coal ash soon. Boxer said she planned to ask Lisa Jackson, President-elect Barack Obama's nominee to head the EPA, whether she agrees on the need for federal regulation at her confirmation hearings.
The EPA decided in 2000, in the Clinton administration, not to regulate coal ash as a hazardous waste. It noted, however, that there was a "lack of controls, such as liners and groundwater monitoring, at many sites" and "gaps in state oversight existed."
Boxer said the ash shouldn't be held in ponds, where it can contaminate water supplies. Coal ash also has been placed in abandoned mines and quarries. In other cases, dry ash is held in lined landfills.
Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., said that Georgia has 10 coal ash storage sites. He expressed interest in setting standards that would prevent spills.
Stephen Smith, the director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, called for federal regulation of coal combustion waste, saying that voluntary industry practices and state rules haven't prevented the contamination of land and water near disposal sites.
"We absolutely need to keep ash out of the water," Smith said. "Storing it wet is unacceptable."
Smith said that that TVA should be held accountable for the disaster and urged a review of the company's emergency preparedness procedures.
William Rose, the director of the Roane County, Tenn., office of emergency services, told the committee that his office had problems working with TVA after the spill because TVA doesn't use the same emergency preparedness program for ponds and dikes that it uses at the region's nuclear and hydroelectric facilities.
The spill occurred at about 1 a.m. on Dec. 22, about 40 miles west of Knoxville. No one was killed.
TVA, the nation's largest public power company, is likely to pass part of the cleanup cost on to its 9 million customers in Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.
There are about 300 coal ash ponds around the country, and EPA data shows that some contain larger amounts of toxic metals than the Kingston one did.
Kilgore estimated that TVA has about 20 ash ponds. They're unlined, and that raises concerns that the toxic material could leach through the bottom, he said. There also are "one or two other places" at TVA ash ponds with a "wet spot on the dike," he said.
Ash stored in dry conditions, with just enough dampness to prevent dust, can be sold for use in concrete, wallboard and other products, Kilgore said. TVA recycles about half its ash, he said.
Kilgore said that EPA tests showed that drinking water and the air near the spill was safe, but Boxer said that some tests of river water showed problems.
Five people who live near the Kingston Fossil Plant who traveled to Washington for the hearing said outside the hearing room that they're worried about their health.
"My biggest concern is my 11-year-old son" who loves to ride his dirt bike, go boating and swim, said Bridget Daughterty, a nurse.
"We will not know the effects for many years. This might affect a lot more people," she said.
Teresa Riggs said she wanted the EPA to tell the community what's in the sludge.
"If it's not hazardous, why are they telling us, 'Don't walk it in and bring it back in your house?'" she said. " 'We're going to wash it off the tires of the trucks. Don't let your animals drink the water.' If it's not hazardous, why are they telling us to be careful?"
Riggs said that her father and her husband's father helped build the Kingston plant in the 1950s, and that the community appreciates the power it provides. She said that she came to Washington to ask lawmakers for more oversight, including a look into whether changes are needed in how the waste is stored.
Texas doesn't require permits for coal ash disposal if it takes place on the property of the company that produces it, isn't mingled with wastes from other companies, and if the disposal site is within 50 miles of the plant.
Kentucky doesn't require emergency plans for its coal company impoundments or at nearly 400 water dams in the state that are rated as high or moderate hazards. Environmentalists and Kentucky lawmakers began pushing to develop a monitoring and public alert system in 2000, when a spill in Martin County dumped 300 million gallons of slurry into creeks, rivers and bottomland in Eastern Kentucky.
(Cassondra Kirby Mullins and Andy Mead of the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader contributed to this article.)
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