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Ongoing Coal Ash Spill Raises Prospect of Regulation

Duke Energy is continuing to struggle to get a handle on its large leak of coal ash into the Dan River. After four days, workers have managed to slow but not entirely halt the steady flow of toxic coal waste, which has totaled an estimated 50,000 to 82,000 tons. The breach occurred at a retired coal plant site, where coal ash is stored in a man-made lake surrounded by earthen walls. Images of black slurry in the Dan River and the inability to quickly plug the leak has fueled speculation that federal regulation will be required to control coal ash, which is commonly stored at similar sites around the country.

Coal ash is the left over slurry after burning coal in power plants, and it holds toxic contaminants like lead, mercury, and arsenic. The spill came only a few days after a court ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency must publish a final rule on the regulation of coal ash by December 19, 2014. EPA began looking at coal ash after a catastrophic failure of a dam in Tennessee leaked a billion gallons of coal ash to neighboring communities in 2008. EPA proposed regulations in 2010 but has seemingly dragged its feet to finalize them after protest from the coal industry, but a lawsuit by environmental groups has forced its hand.

Related article: Coal Industry in Structural Decline

Up until now, coal ash has been exempted from being categorized as a hazardous waste, giving coal companies freer rein over how to handle the waste, which is often recycled into products like cement or drywall. Regulation has been left to the states due to the lack of federal standards, and in many states, such as North Carolina, the state government provides only lax enforcement. The tragedy on the Dan River will put much greater pressure on EPA to tighten the screws at the federal level.

By. Charles Kennedy of Oilprice.com



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