CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Four years ago Saturday, a coal-ash dike ruptured at the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston Plant west of Knoxville, Tenn.
More than a billion gallons of wet ash from the coal-fired power plant poured into nearby streams, fields and homes. The spill covered 300 acres, made three homes uninhabitable and damaged roads, rail lines and utilities.
The disaster turned up the heat on a long-simmering controversy over major loopholes in the way the nation regulates the handling and disposal of millions of tons of ash generated every year by coal-fired power plants.
President Obama and his U.S. Environmental Protection Agency promised to issue the first-ever comprehensive federal regulations. But today, the EPA plan remains stalled, while coalfield congressional representatives continue to seek legislation to ensure the agency can't ever move forward.
"The EPA's delay has allowed the industry to continue pouring dangerous pollutants into leaking dumps that drain into groundwater, and sometimes into wetlands, creeks or rivers that are fed by the aquifers underneath coal ash dumps," said Eric Schaeffer, a former EPA staffer whose group, the Environmental Integrity Project, has been urging federal action on coal-ash rules. "The evidence is in and the election is over. What are the EPA and the White House waiting for?"
Coal-fired power plants generate more than 130 million tons of various ash wastes every year. The numbers have been increasing as more plants install scrubbers and other equipment to control air pollution, a move that shifts the toxic leftovers from burning coal into ash and other wastes.
No single national program sets up a concrete regulatory plan for the handling of those "coal combustion wastes." Instead, the nation relies on a patchwork of state programs that vary in terms of their standards and their level of enforcement.
On Friday, Schaeffer's group issued a new report that said coal plants deposited 218 million tons of ash or scrubber sludge into ponds or landfills between 2009 and 2011, the three years immediately following the Dec. 22, 2008, incident in Tennessee.