Why Columbia's ash pond was given 'high' hazard potential rating

Dec 18, 2014

This week the EPA will make a final decision on a proposed new rule for the disposal of coal combustion residuals, called CCRs, or coal ash.


Coal ash is the dark, sandy-like substance  that results from the burning, or combustion of coal to generate electricity in coal fired power plants. It contains several heavy metals, which can include mercury, arsenic, lead, selenium, and cadmium among others. Those metals are potentially dangerous on their own and the question on the table for the EPA is whether their presence in coal ash is dangerous enough for the ash to be classified and regulated as “hazardous waste” as it is defined by the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

The agency has actually considered this question several times before -  most recently in 2000 - and each time it ruled that coal did not need to be regulated as a hazardous waste.

Then, in 2008, a dike at a power plant in Kingston, Tenn. collapsed, spilling more than 1 billion gallons of wet coal ash (called “sludge” or “slurry”), which spurred the EPA to consider the question again. As part of that effort, the EPA set out to inspect coal ash impoundments around the country.

Here in Columbia, the coal ash produced at the Columbia Municipal Power Plant, which is run by Columbia Water & Light, is released into a type of impoundment referred to as an ‘ash pond.’ The pond, called More’s Lake, was inspected by CDM Smith on behalf of the EPA in 2012. Last September it was reported the pond was given a high hazard potential rating, meaning “failure or mis-operation” of the dam that supports the pond “will probably cause loss of human life.”

The pond also received a “poor” rating for continued safe and reliable operation which, according to the EPA’s website, means “further critical studies or investigations are needed to identify any potential dam safety deficiencies.”

More's Lake dam.
Credit Katie Hiler / KBIA

Interestingly, neither of those ratings say anything about the structural integrity of the dam. And, in particular, the “poor” rating appears to have been given merely due to a lack of documentation about the design and materials used to make the dam supporting More’s Lake.

More’s Lake was built sometime between the late 1800s and early 1900s, before the power plant was constructed at the site in 1912. And according to Columbia Water & Light, the site was once home to a city park where people swam and even fished. 

And if you visit the pond, you can see why. More’s Lake is a fairly pleasant looking ash pond. The perimeter is pocked with trees and plants, animals make their home in the area. According to Power Plant Superintendent Chrisian Johanninmeier, geese flock to the pond in the winter time.

The earthen dam that supports the pond looks to be sound and, according to Johanningmeier, there is no evidence that the dam has ever experienced structural problems or flooding, not even during the flood of 1993. But from the EPA’s perspective, the issue is that there is no documentation to support that assertion.

Since the EPA’s inspection of the dam, Columbia Water & Light has hired a number of  contractors and engineers to perform a series of inspections and analyses on the dam, all of which come with a price tag.

Johanningmeier estimates inspecting the dam will be costly. “It’ll cost the rate payer maybe $70,000 to 

Raccoon captured around the perimeter of More's Lake.
Credit Bram Sable-Smith / KBIA

prove the dam is safe,” Johanningmeier says. Preliminary results indicate the dam is indeed safe, so the question then becomes: is it worth $70,000 to unequivocally prove it?

In many ways the answer to that question is tied to the decision the EPA will make this week in that it depends on just how hazardous coal ash is considered to be.

Barbara Gottleib is Director for Environment and Health at Physicians for Social Responsibility. According to Gottleib the heavy metals in coal ash are extremely toxic. Take cadmium, for example.

"If you live in a community where there is uncovered dry coal ash deposit and the wind blows you may be inhaling cadmium," Gottleib said. "The threats from cadmium are pretty severe: kidney disease, lung diseases like emphysema."

But she admits a direct link is hard to prove. She calls it the “prove it question” which is essentially: if coal ash is so harmful, point to a case where someone has been harmed or killed explicitly from coal ash.

And so far, the EPA and the Missouri Department of Natural Resources are not convinced. The Columbia Municipal Power Plant, for instance, is permitted to discharge water from More’s Lake that contains these metals into a tributary to Bear Creek – which flows into Perche Creek, which flows into the Missouri River, and so on. Though to be fair, it is required to monitor the levels of metals in the water being discharged.

A pile of coal ash dredged from More's Lake.
Credit Katie Hiler / KBIA

But all that could change this week when the EPA makes a final decision on a proposed rule for the disposal of coal ash, which could go one of two ways.

The agency could decide to regulate coal ash as a special waste under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976. Coal ash would be regulated from its point of generation to its point of final disposal. This would include run-off controls, dust controls, it would restrict where the coal ash could be disposed of, and it would even create new requirements for dam safety and stability. And all of this would be federally enforced.

Alternatively the EPA may decide to implement a less restrictive policy. In this scenario it would create national criteria for the disposal of coal ash only – not the generation or storage or treatment of the material. Perhaps more significantly, the EPA would not have the authority to enforce requirements.

If the EPA chooses the first rule, Columbia would need to make major changes to More’s Lake and those would be costly; so much so that Johanningmeier says it would merit a discussion about whether it’s even worthwhile to keep using the lake as an ash pond at all.

Johanningmeier says the power plant is already looking into ways to move the coal ash out of the plant that don’t require water at all. Using conveyers or pneumatic tubes to move the ash instead.

UPDATED at 2:25 p.m. CT on Dec. 17, 2014

On Friday the EPA announced the first national regulation for the disposal of coal ash, regulating under Subtitle D of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. Under the rule coal ash will be regulated similar to trash, including location standards and composite liner requirements. But the rule stops short of classifying coal ash as hazardous.

The federal government does not have the authority to enforce the new rule, relying instead on states to adopt the federal minimum standards. In a press call EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy  highlighted a public reporting requirement, "so that anybody can track whether or not the utilities are doing what they are supposed to do."

McCarthy noted the requirement will open utilities to liability, adding, "It will also allow public citizens to sue if [utilities] are not complying and following the law as we have outlined it."