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Feds want to start regulating safety of coal ash pits

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Federal environmental regulators today issued a long-awaited proposal to begin regulating the safety of coal ash pits. The pits are used at coal-burning power plants in this state and elsewhere to store ash containing toxins like mercury and arsenic.

The Environmental Protection Agency's proposal comes as a result of a December 2008 accident at a coal ash pit in Tennessee that breached and caused a massive spill. The structural integrity of nation's nearly 900 coal ash pits had escaped public attention until the accident at the Tennessee Valley Authority facility flooded more than 300 acres with toxic sludge.

Progress Energy and Duke Energy, North Carolina's biggest power companies, operate 13 ash pits in the state. Most of the ash pits in this state lack sufficient wells to measure groundwater contamination.

The EPA currently does not categorize coal ash as a hazardous substance, but that could change under the newly proposed regulations. The EPA suggests two options for regulating coal as as a non-hazardous waste and as a special waste.

Duke spokesman Andy Thompson the power company is open to some changes in oversight of coal ash pits as long as coal ash is not categorized as hazardous and subject to hazardous waste regulation.

"Some of these requirements could be very costly to our customers," Thompson said. "If it's kept in an ash basin and managed well, then it's not an issue."

The EPA would require protective liners and ground water monitoring, with incentives to encourage power companies to close wet ash ponds within five years and switch to storing ash in dry form, a technique that typically requires trucking the ash and costs more money.

The proposal is open to public comments for 90 days. The final rule is not expected to be adopted until next year.

The proposal does not affect the use of recycled coal ash in the construction industry. The ash is used to make cement, concrete, wallboard and other applications that would be exempt from the EPA oversight.

"We support the continued use of coal-combustion products and are certainly pleased the EPA recognizes the benefits of reuse," said Progress spokesman Mike Hughes. "We have worked hard to develop and support markets for ash reuse, which reduces the need for storage and fulfills a very real need in many industries."

Separately, the state's Division of Water Quality is also planning to monitor groundwater quality at ash pits.

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About the blogger

John Murawski has been a full-time newspaper reporter since 1991, with stints at Legal Times and The Chronicle of Philanthropy (both in Washington, DC), The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Palm Beach Post (in South Florida) before arriving at the N&O in December 2004. At the N&O he covers energy (nuclear, coal, renewable, efficiency), hydraulic fracturing (or "fracking"), public utilities and health care. His beat includes PSNC Energy, Piedmont Natural Gas, Duke Energy Progress, PowerSecure International, GlaxoSmithKline, Merck, Novo Nordisk, Pfizer, Biogen Idec and others. He has also contributed more than 30 book reviews on topics spanning botany, history, science and religion. You can reach him at 919-829-8932 or e-mail him.