14 November 2010

Kingston Coal Sludge Cleanup: The Road Show Returns

Posted by John Freeland

Following the December 22, 2008 breach of a containment dike surrounding an 84-acre coal ash disposal pond at the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) Kingston Fossil Plant in Roane County, TN, the immediate response focused on limiting and containing impacts to the Emory and Clinch Rivers, which were hit hard by the spill. The next step was to collect and haul the sludge away to disposal sites. As reported, this expensive export process became a long-distance “Odyssey” fraught with bureaucratic red tape, public opposition, questionable business practices, permit violations, and stonewalling.

According to this report by the Knoxville News up to 17,000 rail car loads of ash were sent to a landfill in Uniontown, Alabama. Unusually heavy rains soaked the ash, causing the landfill operators to find a way to dispose of up to 100,000 gallons of contaminated water per day.

The wastewater was sent to a nearby municipal treatment facility that was unable to continue receiving it. Next, the landfill ash-water was shipped to a commercial treatment plant 350 miles away in Mobile, AL. Citizens raised a fuss when they learned it was being discharged into to Mobile Bay.

Again, we’re not talking about the coal ash, but an additional volume of contaminated water – rainwater that came in contact with the ash at the Alabama landfill. After the hassles in Mobile, the next stop for the ash-water was a commercial waste treatment facility in Georgia, which the State of Georgia asserted did not have a required operating permit. Turned away again, the landfill company submitted a plan to haul the wastewater to Louisiana and Mississippi. Eventually, parties involved became increasingly tight-lipped about disclosing the precise locations of proposed disposal.

So, where would this tortuous ash disposal journey end? Like a lot of journeys: back where it started. On May 18, 2010 the Kingston Ash Recovery Non-Time-Critical Removal Action Embayment/Dredge Cell Action Memorandum (Action Memorandum) was signed by the TVA and the EPA Region 4 Superfund Division.

The Action Memorandum calls for on-site disposal of the remaining coal as at and near the original spill. The Action Memorandum gives details of the disposal plan. For a shorter read, you can get a rough idea here.

The Action Memorandum contains, in my view, some compromise language regarding the health risks of coal ash. It also establishes spescifications for design, construction, and monitoring of a new coal ash disposal facility. The plan includes reinforced lagoon walls with reduced height, a sand and gravel base with a geotextile liner, a drainage plan, a soil cap with revegetation, restoration of destroyed wetlands, and a 30-year groundwater monitoring protocol.

At Kingston, we may be seeing a national prototype for cleaner, safer (and long-overdue) coal ash disposal standards going forward.