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Editorial: ‘High hazard’ for Spencer

Although Rowan County residents were already aware of coal-ash storage ponds at the Buck Steam Station, Spencer’s inclusion on an EPA list of 26 communities near “high hazard” impoundments should heighten local interest in the safety of the slurry retention ponds near the Yadkin River.
It also should amplify calls for the EPA to exercise more rigorous oversight over hundreds of coal-ash impoundments spread out across the country. As the nation learned from the catastrophe that occurred last December in Kingston, Tenn., if a pond fails, it can set loose a sea of toxic muck that can destroy downstream property and create serious environmental hazards for fish, wildlife and humans. The EPA stresses that being cited on the list of the 44 “high hazard” ponds is not an indication that such a catastrophe is likely to occur. It means that, should a dam failure occur at one of these ponds, the potential consequences for nearby residents could be devastating, including “probable loss of human life,” acording to an EPA official. But the “high hazard” potential underscores the need for rigorous regulation, not only in terms of pond stability but also regarding potential contamination from lower-grade incidents or seepage.
Previously, Duke Energy offered assurances that it keeps close tabs on the Buck Station impoundments, which are among 14 such sites in North Carolina. Without a doubt, after the Kingston spill, utilities and state and federal regulators took a closer look at ash ponds. Amid congressional calls for tighter regulation, the EPA said it would step up its monitoring, and the most hazardous list released this week is one result of its increased vigilance.
The EPA is inspecting each of these 44 sites individually. Pending a more detailed report on what it finds at the Buck Steam Station and other N.C. coal-ash sites, we won’t know whether any deficiences need to be addressed. But even if the inspection confirms that none of the N.C. sites has any serious structural flaws, that doesn’t erase the potential for environmental consequences. A 2002 EPA report that examined the potential health risks for people living near coal-ash ponds found those residents were at somewhat higher risk for exposure to arsenic and other toxic chemicals, including contamination of drinking water. While a major spill garners high-profile attention, minor leakages also could have serious consequences for human health.
Before the Kingston spill, the power industry had successfully resisted efforts by the EPA to classify coal ash as a hazardous waste, arguing that heightened regulation would cost billions of dollars a year. But the Kingston spill swept away that argument, along with any suggestion that the coal-ash storage sites pose little risk. The EPA now says there are at least 44 sites ó including 14 in North Carolina ó with a high hazard potential. If the hazard is great enough to be a potential threat to Spencer, it’s certainly great enough to warrant more state and federal oversight.

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