Archive for the ‘Hazardous Waste’ Category

Still Not Gone

Via Wikimedia Commons

Via Wikimedia Commons

I hate to keep beating the proverbial dead horse, but Fukushima is the gift that keeps on giving. Or the problem from hell.

Last week I wrote about how the Fukushima disaster had re-entered the news cycle, and not in a good way. After largely vanishing from public consciousness, the stricken reactors had emerged from the memory hole after Tepco, the plants’ operator, announced that massive amounts of radioactive water had escaped from temporary holding tanks and was headed for the open seas. In that post, I described Tepco’s response to the disaster from the get-go as hapless. That adjective hardly seems sufficient to describe the Inspector Clouseau of energy companies.

Following hard on the heels of last week’s announcement that, its prior multiple protestations notwithstanding, the situation at the devastated plants was not contained (and notwithstanding its hallucinatory plan to freeze the ground to prevent contaminated water from leaching into the ocean) comes word that the situation at the stricken plants is even worse than Tepco has ever let on. Or, more to the point, ever knew.

All along, Tepco has reported that the radiation emitted by the leaking water was around 100 millisieverts an hour. Well, the equipment the company was relying on to make those readings could only measure up to 100 milisieverts.  So, apparently, they took that as the actual reading of the radiation level.  Turns out the actual amount of radiation is 1,800 millisieverts an hour.  Garbage in, as they say, gives garbage out.

And how much is that? Enough to prove lethal in a mere four hours. Pause a moment to think of the workers who have been struggling to contain those leaking tanks.

You have to wonder where Tepco got their Geiger counters. Army surplus? Did Tepco simply not have the equipment to accurately measure the radiation? Did it know the amount and hope to keep mum about it? At this point, it scarcely matters. The company, the devastated plants, and Japan at large seem destined to stumble from one appalling revelation to another. Please join me in hoping I don’t have to post about Fukushima next week.

Compliance During Inclement Weather

Photo courtesy of @gletham GIS, Social, Mobile Tech Images. Some rights reserved.

While tornadoes dominate headlines, the EPA is looking forward a few weeks to the onset of hurricane season. As if your personal safety weren’t enough to look out for, a recent EPA news release reminds us that extra precautions should be taken to minimize chemical releases associated with natural disasters.

This is not only a gentle suggestion but a federal requirement. Under the Clean Air Act’s Section 112(r)(1) – 42 U.S.C. 7412(r)(1) – owners and operators of facilities producing, processing, handling or storing hazardous substances have a “general duty” to take the steps necessary to prevent releases of such substances (you can see a list of the regulated substances at 40 C.F.R. 68.130). Such steps typically include a mix of general safety precautions and maintenance, monitoring, and employee training measures.

Let a little something slip? Any release that surpasses the “reportable quantity” for that substance mandates immediate notification of the National Response Center pursuant to Section 103 of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (42 U.S.C. 9603). But just because you’ve notified the federal authorities doesn’t mean you can leave your neighbors in the dark – Section 304 of the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (42 U.S.C. 11004) requires owners and operators to alert state and local emergency response groups as well.

The relative predictability of hurricanes buys affected facility owners/operators a little bit of time – a rare opportunity not afforded to those in tornado zones. Of course, many of the precautions recommended are the same, it’s just that the schedule for implementation can be drastically different.

For more information, visit the EPA’s Natural Disaster and Weather Emergencies center.

Is the EPA’s Regulatory Impact Analysis of the Coal Ash Rule Flawed?

Just over two years has passed since the Kingston, TN coal ash spill, but according to the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP), federal proposals to regulate coal ash dumps are still “being held up by concerns that stricter standards would depress markets for coal-ash recycling.”

Aerial view of Kingston ash slide. Photo by Tennessee Valley Authority. Some rights reserved.

In December of 2008, more than 1 billion gallons of coal ash slurry gushed from the TVA Kingston Fossil Plant’s broken dike and destroyed several houses before pouring into the Emory and Clinch Rivers, killing numerous fish and polluting drinking water in the area.

Coal ash (also Coal Combustion Residuals or CCR), which is made up of byproducts of the combustion of coal at power plants, is currently considered an “exempt waste” under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA, 42 USC 6901 et seq). But even the EPA acknowledges that the ash contains “contaminants like mercury, cadmium and arsenic associated with cancer and various other serious health effects.”

In the aftermath of the spill, realizing that “without proper protections, the contaminants in coal can leach into groundwater and often migrate to drinking water sources, posing significant health public concerns,” the EPA began the process of regulating coal ash disposal.

On June 21, 2010, the EPA published the Coal Combustion Residuals Proposed Rule, which sought public comment on two possible approaches for regulation under RCRA. Regulation under Subtitle C (40 CFR Parts 260-279) would treat coal ash as a hazardous waste, while regulation under Subtitle D (40 CFR Parts 239-258) would treat it as only solid waste (see the key differences between the options here). Needless to say, utilities are gunning for the less strict – and therefore less costly – option under Subtitle D.

Yesterday, however, EIP published a scathing press release, in which it accused the EPA of grossly overestimating the value of coal ash recycling in the Regulatory Impact Analysis for the proposed rule. While most environmentalists applaud the reuse of coal ash to make products such as concrete, cement, or wallboard, EIP is concerned that the overstated benefits could end up “stacking the deck in favor of the weaker regulatory option favored by industry,” as the EPA’s analysis implies that the higher costs of the stricter regulation may cause roadblocks to recycling the ash.

EIP worked along with Earthjustice and the Stockholm Environment Institute to re-evaluate the estimates in the EPA’s Regulatory Impact Analysis. You can read their report here.

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