More than a dozen Illinois power plants store toxic coal ash in sludge ponds similar to the one that burst and spread contaminated muck over 300 acres of eastern Tennessee last month, according to a Tribune review of federal records.
The sludge dumps, all Downstate, are among hundreds of makeshift ponds across the nation that are regulated far more loosely than household garbage landfills, despite years of studies documenting how arsenic, lead, mercury and other heavy metals in the coal ash threaten water supplies and human health.
Most of the water-soaked ash-the byproduct of burning coal to generate electricity-is stored close to bodies of water, including Lake Michigan, Lake Erie, the Mississippi River and the Illinois River.
Questions about whether utilities should face tougher regulations will be an early test of President-elect Barack Obama's environmental policies. Under intense pressure from coal and utility interests, the Clinton and Bush administrations rejected calls to classify coal ash as hazardous waste.
Environmental groups on Wednesday urged the incoming administration to set tough rules that would require safer storage or recycling of coal ash. Some power companies already have found other ways to dispose of their ash, including Midwest Generation, the firm that owns five coal-fired power plants in the Chicago area.
Like several other U.S. companies, Midwest Generation ships dry coal ash from its local plants to be added to cement or for other "beneficial uses." Tons of the waste ended up in concrete poured for the recent expansion of O'Hare International Airport.
Industry representatives have aggressively promoted the reuse of coal ash as the amount generated grew during the past two decades. But many companies still add water to the ash and pump it to ponds similar to the one that ruptured in late December next to the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston Fossil Plant.
"The dangers here are two-fold," said Eric Schaeffer, a former Environmental Protection Agency official who now heads the non-profit Environmental Integrity Project. "You can have the sudden spill and the dramatic disaster that Kingston represents, or you can have slow poisoning as these impoundments leach toxic metals."
In a 2007 report, the U.S. EPA identified 63 sites in 26 states where groundwater and wells had been contaminated with heavy metals from coal ash ponds. The list includes eight sites in Illinois, seven in Indiana and nine in Wisconsin.
A year earlier, the National Research Council, one of the nation's leading scientific organizations, found that coal ash can contain high levels of heavy metals that "may pose public health and environmental concerns if improperly managed."
Nationally, oversight of coal ash ponds has been spotty over the years, largely because some states do not regulate them. Others, including Illinois and Indiana, have rules, but they are more lax than regulations applying to regular landfills.
The town of Pines, Ind., about 40 miles southeast of Chicago, was declared a federal Superfund site after regulators discovered that wells there were contaminated with heavy metals from coal ash dumped into a neighboring landfill.
Federal officials have been mulling tougher national regulations for nearly three decades. In 2000 the Clinton EPA declared that coal ash is hazardous waste but soon reversed its decision in the face of intense opposition from industry, which argued that more stringent disposal requirements would cost $5 billion a year. The Bush administration later said it would impose new regulations but never did so.
Industry produced 131 million tons of coal combustion waste in 2007, up from less than 90 million tons in 1990. The amount has swelled in part because of rising demand for electricity, but also because federal regulations have required power companies to improve their pollution controls. Most of the waste now pumped into holding ponds-or surface impoundments, as they are known within the industry-once was belched out of smokestacks into the air.
In Illinois, state regulators said power companies increasingly are trying to keep their coal ash dry so it can be marketed to concrete companies, a type of recycling that generally is considered safe.
Still, 14 of the state's power plants dumped sludge containing a combined 2,826 tons of toxic metals into Downstate sludge ponds during 2006, the last year for which figures are available from the EPA's Toxics Release Inventory.
Only nine other states dumped more toxic metals in this way. Alabama led the nation with 6,680 tons; Indiana was fourth with 4,431 tons.
Most of the Illinois plants that dump coal ash are owned by two companies, Dynegy and Ameren. Representatives from both companies said their surface impoundments meet state regulations and are monitored for leaks.
"We haven't identified any issues similar to what is being faced by the TVA," said David Byford, a Dynegy spokesman.
In a recent financial filing, Ameren reported that it will need to spend at least $1.5 million to seal off ash ponds next to its Duck Creek plant in Fulton County and Coffeen plant in Montgomery County.
Several of the Downstate power plants built new ash ponds in the early 1990s after the Illinois EPA began requiring the ponds to be lined, a step that helps reduce leaching. Officials said it's possible some older ponds are still not lined.