Assurances aren’t enough on coal-ash basin safety

Published 12:00 am Thursday, July 23, 2009

Annual state inspections of “high hazard” coal-ash basins should help lower the risks for Rowan County residents and others living near the utility storage operations that have come under greater scrutiny in the wake of last year’s disastrous spill in Tennessee.
Although Duke Power has offered assurances that it closely monitors and stringently maintains coal-ash impoundments at the Buck Steam Station and similar sites around the state, residents near the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston Fossil Plant also had been assured that its coal-ash sites were safe. The spill that unleashed more than 5 million cubic yards of toxic muck into a nearby community proved otherwise. This week, an independent report concluded there were widespread problems with the TVA’s coal-ash operations, including failure to address risks that should have been obvious. “By the time the Kingston spill occurred, there had been decades of neglect,” the report found.
In the wake of the spill, the EPA released a list of 44 communities near “high hazard” impoundments, including the Buck plant and 13 others in North Carolina. Amid calls for greater oversight of such sites, the N.C. House has passed a measure mandating annual inspections of the state’s coal-ash dams and shifting oversight to the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources. Previously, supervision had been left to the N.C. Utilities Commission, which is more suited for setting rates than for a safety watchdog role.
Along with ensuring that the storage sites are operated safely, shifting oversight to the DENR should help provide some clarification about just how high these hazards actually are ó a question of major interest to Rowan residents downstream from the Buck site. The EPA says the designation refers to a storage site’s proximity to clusters of residents and shouldn’t be construed as suggesting there’s an imminent risk. North Carolina has had its own hazard rating for ash pond (and other) dams, and the DENR database previously labeled the Buck plant a low-hazard site, requiring inspection only every five years.
In the wake of public safety and environmental concerns, Congress is considering strengthening federal controls over coal-ash. The House Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment will hold hearings later this month. While federal oversight needs to be stronger, North Carolina shouldn’t wait on Washington to protect its citizens against the a repeat of what happened in Tennessee. Whether the coal-ash hazard is deemed “high” or “low,” a major spill would cause substantial damage, including the possible loss of life. Annual inspections by an independent state agency are a must.