No Reason for Secrecy of Ash Sites

Published on
by
Knoxville News Sentinel (Tennessee)

No Reason for Secrecy of Ash Sites

by
Dr. Bruce Tschantz

The federal government's recent decision to restrict public disclosure of the locations of the 44 coal ash storage sites classified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as being potentially hazardous to property and lives because of potential structural instability sets a double standard.

The reason reported by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for withholding this information from the public is national security concerns about presumed terrorist sabotage.

It is my strong opinion that this information should be released to the public and to all state emergency management agencies immediately so that effective emergency action planning can be developed and implemented in the event of failure and so that the public and other community stakeholders can make informed decisions.

None of these ash waste impoundments, including TVA's failed Kingston Fossil Plant, is regulated at the federal level for structural safety; and state regulation of these sites for structural safety is weak.

Meanwhile, most dams are just as much of a security risk as fly ash structures, but information about them is more readily available. The National Inventory of Dams (NID) database, maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, provides basic information to government officials and the general public for dams that meet certain size criteria. Federal agencies have developed security programs to protect their dams against terrorist attack.

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) 2009 report card on America's infrastructure showed that, of the more than 85,000 dams in the United States, about 4,100 were classified in 2007 as being "deficient," meaning they had some structural or hydraulic safety problem.

Of these deficient dams, more than 1,700 remained unrepaired and were categorized as "high hazard," where lives would be lost if failure occurred. (Tennessee regulates about 150 high-hazard dams.)

Each state, except Alabama, regulates the safety of nonfederal dams and maintains an inventory and hazard classification, and a large majority of these states make this information available to the public on a dam-by-dam basis.

Approximately 40 states, including Tennessee, have the authority to require owners of high-hazard dams to develop emergency action plans. Dams owned or regulated by federal agencies are constructed, operated, inspected and maintained according to federal dam safety guidelines. Most federal dams have inundation maps and emergency action plans for protecting the public in the event of pending failure.

My question for federal policy makers is: Why should there be a double standard where information about one type of structure, such as a high-hazard dam, is available to the public, but information about similar and equally hazardous structures, such as fly ash impoundments, is kept secret?

Secrecy should not be a substitute for safety, accountability and security

 

Dr. Bruce Tschantz, is University of Tennessee Professor Emeritus of the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department. He coordinated the development of the 1979 Federal Guidelines for Dam Safety for the Executive Office of the President and developed FEMA's Office of Federal Dam Safety, where he served as its first chief in 1980.

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